Yellowman: Two Paths Converge
Milwaukee Rep's Two-person drama in the Stiemke
Mimi Lien’s set is simple, abstract and strikingly beautiful. Two hardwood paths converge. A few planks stick out—rising from those paths. The two paths’ vertex is covered in a black, hardened tar-like substance. I don’t recall ever seeing a set so perfectly sum-up the story taking place on it. On an abstract, symbolic level the set sums up the story quite nicely. Thankfully, the Milwaukee Rep’s production of Yellowman is captivating enough in its brief time onstage that one need not take a look at the set and then leave having experienced the heart of the story.
Dael Orlandersmith’s Yellowman is the story of two people told in two tandem monologues. It’s a love story—a tragic one. If one chooses not to heed the symbolism of the set itself, the fact that the deftly-woven story plays out in two tandem monologues and NOT a dialogue is further foreshadowing.
Ryan Quinn plays Eugene—an African American man of fair skin. Erica Bradshaw plays a darker skinned black woman named Alma. Out of context in a more contemporary setting, the skin color probably wouldn’t be that significant. (Maybe this is me showing my white ignorance, I don’t know . . . ) In any case, the skin tone of the two characters is extremely significant here as Yellowman is set in South Caroline in the 1960’s. White people were the top of the socioeconomic ladder, with blacks below them, but there was further stratification. Blacks of lighter complexion were “high yellow,” just a little more wealthy than those of a darker skin tone. The play speaks of a lonely restlessness in the middle as whites still treated fair-skinned blacks like they were less than human and dark-skinned blacks considered them wealthy arrogant outsiders.
Orlandersmith outlines a coming of age story of romance between fair-skinned Eugene and dark-skinned Alma. She renders characters that are profoundly complex. It would be an oversimplification to say that the mixed signals that Eugene gets from the culture around him make him confused and angry. It would be a similar oversimplification to say that, growing up in poverty amongst people who hate themselves, Alma is driven to success. And thankfully, the complexity of the characters as laid-out in the script are vividly present onstage thanks to remarkably good performances by Quinn and Bradshaw in the lead roles.
There’s a lot going on in the story. Themes and ideas repeat in a weird kind of emotional echo chamber that Bradshaw and Quinn manage to harness. The trick is to keep the emotional rhythm and progression of the piece rolling fluidly through the entire 90-minutes without break for an intermission. Director May Adrales appears to have done a decent job of working with the actors to develop a rhythm to the piece that amplifies the piece where needed without making it feel overpowering.
As a pair of staged monologues outlining a very epic story of love and loss, Yellowman wouldn’t work in a completely casual tone, but the raw aggression and emotion of the piece would be compromised by performances that were too overpowering. The cast has struck a really good balance between raw, natural emotion and something altogether more poetic and artistic. There are moments that feel a little artificially amplified, though. The Rep is kind of held back in not having a smaller, more intimate stage for this kind of production. Those moments where the language opens up and feels a bit overly staged are only really a problem if you think about them, though . . . and there IS so much else her to think about.
The show works on multiple levels. It’s a romance between two people, but it’s also the s story of two families tied up in the echoes of an old culture that will not die easily. Beyond it all, the most fascinating end of the emerging story is Orlandersmith’s insight into the way old ignorance perpetuates itself as people and cultures come of age. As brutal as this story ends up being, I like to think things are better for everyone involved. And I look at the news and hope the ignorance isn’t simply shifting in different directions.