There’s a universal tinge to the colors of ‘Yellowman’
Theater’s Orange County premiere of the 2002 play, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, will prompt audiences to discuss themes that are part of the human experience.
By Eric Marchese
There are so many interesting storylines connected to “Yellowman” that it’s hard to decide where to start and which to draw attention to.
For starters, the play was a finalist for the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. How about the fact that prior to this play, triple-threat actor, poet and playwright Dael Orlandersmith had written only one-person shows? Or that Chance’s production is the play’s Orange County premiere. (Perhaps the most recent staging in all of Southern California was a 2007 San Diego production.)
A memory play structured in five parts, “Yellowman” looks at the lifelong relationship between Alma, a dark-skinned African-American woman who dreams of life beyond the confines of her smalltown Southern upbringing, and Eugene, the light-skinned black man whose fate is intertwined with hers.
As Alma and Eugene discover, when their friendship turns to love, their different skin colors raise obstacles that seem nearly insurmountable. It also explores issues surrounding what it is to be black, regardless of gender.
Most crucially, though, “Yellowman” looks at these themes in the larger context of how people, regardless of skin color, view themselves and others. The play will prompt you to ask whether we are on the inside what we appear to be on the outside and whether people ultimately are victims of the biases and prejudices of our parents and those around us.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the script, noted time and again by audience members and journalists, is that it requires the cast’s two actors to portray not just Alma and Eugene but all of the story’s other characters, often switching back and forth mid-scene between characters. That’s quite a feat for a playwright who had previously only written solo shows with herself in mind for each role.
“Yellowman” garnered widespread critical acclaim and praise for the playwright’s poetic handling of language, and Orlandersmith was awarded the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize for the play, which was in the running for the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
Director, Khanisha Foster says she has long admired Orlandersmith’s work and that she has a particular affection for “Yellowman,” relating that as a high school student, “I used to go to the library every weekend, take out ‘Yellowman,’ find a corner, and read it again, and again, and again, and again.”
At that point in her life, Foster was starved for theater she could relate to; her theater teacher’s library of published plays at the school “only had one type of voice represented.”
“I don’t know if I knew what I was looking for in ‘Yellowman’ then” Foster says, “(but) as a black, mixed-race woman with broad shoulders and full hips, I knew there was something of me in the play. I saw myself in its pages. What draws me to it now is the love story. Everybody’s heart beats for someone.”
When talking about the play and Orlandersmith’s writing, she says, “The vibrancy of the words she put on the page really just shook me. The rhythm of her work always stands out – it gets your heart pumping.”
Foster has not only seen much of Orlandersmith’s works for theater but has also forged a personal connection. She worked on audience engagement for The Kirk Douglas Theater’s production of “Until the Flood,” the playwright’s last show before the pandemic shutdown.
During that run, Foster “was honored to interview her for our post-show conversations.” Those audience chats, Foster says, revealed the poet-playwright’s earliest experiences bringing her written work to the public, noting that “those early beginnings of rhythm and poetry dance across the page in ‘Yellowman’ too.”
The director says that in her work with the Chicago troupe 2nd Story, she and fellow company members would “delight in the direct connection between storyteller and audience,” and she says that “the direct address is very present in the storytelling” of the two-person “Yellowman.”
“It’s intimate. It should feel like the moment when you’re eating and drinking with your closest friends and telling your best stories.”
When asked how crucial was the factor of casting for a play like this, Foster replied, “Please capitalize every letter of CRUCIAL. Vital. There’s no play without the right actors. Thank goodness we found them: Julanne Chidi Hill and Dante Alexander not only blew us away in auditions, but they are an absolute joy to have in the room. Powerhouses – the both of them.”
Kristin Campbell, Chance’s scenic designer for the show, shares Foster’s enthusiasm for Orlandersmith’s work, calling her “an incredibly poetic and descriptive playwright” whose words “make you feel the world surrounding the characters.”
“Yellowman,” Campbell said, not only has these qualities but is also “incredibly visceral.” She said she draws her design ideas directly from the script. “I knew from my first read-through that the set begged for the textures of this world.” The rest of her concepts are derived from research images as well as “a strong collaboration” with Foster.
Campbell said she later realized that what she originally envisioned “was by far too dour” – so she reframed her ideas so that they were more in sync with those of Foster, who “urged that my designs explore the joy of these characters’ lives as well as the struggle.”
Eagle-eyed audience members will notice how various objects and elements of the set “represent themes surrounding identity or the socioeconomic differences between Alma and Eugene.”
Foster and Campbell were asked about the takeaway for audiences, what they hope audiences will get out of seeing “Yellowman.”
Campbell said the script contains “a lot of anger, frustration and hate… but at the core of it, there are these two beautiful human beings connecting with one another,” so she hopes the audience “can focus on the love between Alma and Eugene.”
For Foster, it’s “the love story between two beautiful humans. I hope we give you all the feelings.”
Eric Marchese has written about numerous subjects over more than 35 years as a freelance and staff journalist for a wide variety of publications, but is best known as a critic, feature writer and news reporter covering theater and the arts throughout Orange County and beyond.
Cripe Stage, Chance Theater @ Bette Aitken theater arts center, 5522 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim.
September 24-October 24. Thu. 7:30 p.m., Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 3 and 8 p.m., Sun. 3 p.m.
$20-$39 (senior, military, student and child discounts available)