An ambitious two-person play, Yellowman is about "colorism," a term defined as black-on-black discrimination based on skin shade or a form of intra-racial prejudice. Should whites be surprised at the extent to which skin tone affects black life? Consider that Barack Obama has been accused by some in the black community of "not being black enough."
University Theatre's solid production depends heavily on the acting talents of Olivia Dawson and James Macon Grant - and this duo delivers. A Pulitzer Prize finalist written by African American playwright Dael Orlandersmith, Yellowman is about Alma (Dawson) and Eugene (Grant), whose childhood friendship grows into love but eventually twists into tragedy. Alma is black and Eugene is high-yella.
Director Sheri Williams Pannell recalls a cruel childhood rhyme: "If you're white, you're all right/If you're yellow, you're mellow/If you're brown, stick around/But if you're black, get back."
The stage set provides cues: A few simple raised platforms that become - as needed - a South Carolina schoolyard, a train, the streets of New York. Ma Rainey sings blues in the background. There's a backdrop of sepia photographs - portraits of men, women, children, old and young, dark and light. Some could be Alma and Eugene's family, folks so damaged by self-hate that they turn their own pain on their children.
Dawson and Grant people the stage with these characters: parents, neighbors and childhood friends. Dawson can become her drunken mother, Odelia, with a mercurial shift in expression as her face tightens into a scowl and she turns on 9-year-old Alma: "Yo fat ol' ugly black ting."
Grant achieves his character shifts with changes in his voice and his body language. His shoulders actually seem to broaden, his legs to lengthen as Eugene's father glowers down at his bewildered son: "Yo think I be more handsome if'n I was high-yella like you?"
Orlandersmith's language is often poetic, at times almost breaking into song, as when the ebullient Alma walks through New York neighborhoods. She describes the way her heels click and her hips sway as she walks from Chinatown to Harlem, from the Village to El Barrio. Alma's escaped, and she can never "go back to that thick-heeled, crusty dirt walk." But these moments of innocent joy turn dark as Yellowman comes to its sad, unsettling finale.
Yellowman runs in repertory with A Nervous Smile, another master of fine arts directing project.