Yellowman at Greenetree Productions | Theater review
Dael Orlandersmith’s 2002 play follows a pair of childhood friends turned sweethearts and the forces that work against their love.
Archetypes abound in this two-hander, which was short-listed for the Pulitzer Prize in drama in 2002. Playwright Dael Orlandersmith, who originated the female lead, creates a fugue of voices led by childhood playmates turned sweethearts in ’60s and ’70s South Carolina. Alma (Deanna K. Reed), daughter of a poor Gullah islander, and the lighter-skinned, better-off Eugene (Greenetree artistic director J. Israel Greene) rise above wretched parenting with a lively friendship. But the forces that power their familial abuse—class resentment, racial prejudice, gender pressures and, above all, the harshly ranked gradations of black skin—pull hard on the lovers’ innocence and sense of self.
The gifted Reed, whose knack for melting into ages, genders and accents recalls Anna Deavere Smith, animates her characters with zest and a committed physicality. She convinces equally as a child, a young woman striding through New York City and a prodigal father who has a slight lurch that manages to be even more frightening than his cruel put-downs. Though Greene is handsome enough for the role of the naive Eugene, he’s too urbane to be convincing as a small-towner or an emotional kettle about to boil over. Demon rum permeates the play with sinister fumes, which set designer Shaun Renfro emphasizes by lining the underside of the stage with liquor bottles; alcohol is a foundation, a deadening remedy and a deadly catalyst.