Love, destroyed by hate, in the Rep’s “Yellowman”
Too often, we simplify race. It’s a human impulse, to categorize people into little boxes — black, white, Asian, Middle Eastern — pair them up, and then make whatever generalizations you deem appropriate.
But race, when you really look at it, is often more like a palette of colors, a matter of skin shades moving up and down a Pantone swatch. And that means racism is different too. How you see it depends on what part of the strip you’re on.
That’s a proposal that fuels Yellowman, the powerful new show at the Milwaukee Rep’s Stiemke Studio. Set in an insulated community in South Carolina, it depicts the lives of two friends and lovers: Alma (Erica Bradshaw), a dark-skinned woman from the countryside, and Eugene (Ryan Quinn), a light-skinned boy from within the city limits.
Those distinctions have more force than we would like to believe. Alma’s mother, a beaten-down woman who cannot see herself and her daughter as anything but “big, black and ugly,” has only two dreams for her life: that Alma’s lighter-skinned father come back to them and that Alma marry a light-skinned boy. Eugene, on the other hand, is constantly overshadowed by his father, a man of jet-black skin who worked his way up in the world and bears nothing but contempt for “high yella” blacks like his son and wife’s family, who he believes have it easier than he because of the color of their skin.
It’s an artistic decision by writer Dael Orlandersmith that drives home how strong those family bonds are. No matter how hard they try to fight it — Alma by going away to college and Eugene by simply pursuing Alma despite intense pressure not to from both sides of his family — they are the product of their parents’ generation, and that means they inherit the results of their ancestors’ prejudice as well.
That’s a hard lesson to learn, though. The story begins in childhood, Alma and Eugene affecting the carefree voices and mannerisms of children meeting and becoming friends. We’ll never see them smiling so bright again.
Alma and Eugene are blissfully ignorant of the complexity of their complexions early on, but their environment teaches them quickly. Alma’s father rejects her because she and her mother are too dark of skin. Eugene goes to play at a darker-skinned friends’ house and is thrown off the porch. That same friend is later tormented by one of Eugene’s new, lighter-skinned friends, who buys one of his two puppies for sale and then kills it in front of him. The darker of the two puppies, of course.
Yellowman is an ugly play to watch. Alma and Eugene are the bright spots, of course, but they’re bright spots surrounded by dark shadows. When they’re close enough that those spotlights overlap, there’s brilliant love in it. But too often they — and Bradshaw and Quinn, in a brilliant piece of blocking by director May Adrales — are walking or looking right past each other, on paths that intersect but do not go in the same direction (a metaphor greatly aided by scenic designer Mimi Lien’s set, a minimalistic tar- and sawdust-spattered pair of crossed wooden boardwalks).
It’s infuriating how close Alma and Eugene come to happiness, which is a disconcerting feeling, having watched anger and hate be the very instruments that tear them apart.
The Milwaukee Rep’s production of Yellowman will run through Nov. 13 at the Stiemke Studio. Tickets range from $25 to $40, and can be purchased at the Rep’s website or (414) 224-9490.