Theater archives

Skin and Boners


A hundred and fifty years after Uncle Tom’s Cabin depicted the black/white divide in stark, simplistic terms, Dael Orlandersmith’s Yellowman lays bare the complex gradations of white racism as the black community has absorbed and monstrously reconfigured it.

How white are you? In Orlandersmith’s rural South Carolina, the answer to the question brands each family member. Both within and without the kinship group, the dark-skinned are reviled as ugly brutes, the “high yellow” are envied but despised as weaklings. The physical violence they wage against each other is horrific, but their emotional savagery is almost more shocking.

The story, narrated and enacted by Alma (Orlandersmith) and Eugene (Howard W. Overshown), details their childhood friendship, teenage courtship, and coming-of-age romance. Alma, a large, dark-skinned girl, daughter of a darker, self-hating mother and an absent light-skinned father, strives to escape their rural poverty. Eugene is caught in the tension between his light mother, his dark father, and the “yellow” grandfather who rejected them all.

In the course of their alternating, interlocking narratives, the actors portray the protagonists, their parents, grandparents, neighbors, and friends. The most intensely dramatic scenes are not between the lovers, who rarely speak directly to each other, but between characters portrayed by one actor. Sliding from her own, more cultivated speech to the Gullah dialect of her mother Odelia, Orlandersmith creates a heartbreaking encounter where Odelia throws herself on the road clutching the knees of her departing lover, Alma’s father. He abuses her as a black bitch he never loved and shakes her off like a dog. Drunk and raging, Odelia forces the child to drink a foul root mixture to make her “lighter.” With beguiling ease, Orlandersmith winds from spirited child to abashed, hopeful teen, to devastated daughter.

Overshown generates an even more remarkable range of characters, fluidly shifting between hurt boy, vengeful father, timid mother, steely grandfather, and other vivid figures. In a spare, low-key style, he breathes them from the inside out. In one agile, fist-flinging frenzy, he becomes both combatants fighting viciously to a heart-stopping finish.

Yellowman offers lighter moods too. In an Annie Hall-esque scene, the teenage lovers cringe as Odelia, drunk and sloppy at a dinner at Eugene’s house, leers about the “purty yella babies” they’ll make. Orlandersmith’s writing is rich, rhythmic, and allusive as well as raw and unsettling. Her details are right, as when Alma, in the throes of teen jealousy, wails about those “light-skinned, long-haired girls. . . . They throw back their heads for show.”

Only the denouement of the piece seems contrived. The dual narrative, inherently undramatic, also seems mannered at times, but it allows Orlandersmith leeway to show both Alma’s and Eugene’s thoughts, touchingly when they first make love—he exultantly, she writhing at the image of herself “big and black against the sheets.”

Despite the narrated style, the actors make one feel as if the stage were full of characters. Blanka Zizka’s dynamic direction fosters this, as does Klara Zieglerova’s quick-change scenic projections. And while Yellowman depicts with merciless specificity the varying degrees of black or white, it also cuts to the heart of any of us who imagined we could escape the bigotry of our culture or becoming the parents we despised.

No white characters appear in Yellowman; nor is there one onstage in The Romance of Magno Rubio, which also presents a slice of life oppressed by the dominant culture. Adapted by Lonnie Carter from a story by Carlos Bulosan, the Ma-Yi Theater Company stages the piece as a kind of folktale with sociological underpinnings. The play tells of the illusory romance of Magno Rubio, a rube and simpleton, surrounded by his fruit-picker bunkmates in California in the 1930s. Variously encouraging, teasing, homesick, or conniving, these friends of Magno narrate and comment on his sight-unseen adoration of Clarabelle, whose picture he’s plucked from a lonely hearts magazine. He sends the Arkansas blonde gifts that eat up his meager earnings from picking grapes and cauliflower. Even when evidence mounts that she’s playing him for a sucker, he still clings to his dream of wedded bliss.

Director Loy Arcenas uses traditional Filipino music and choreographed stick movement to stage Carter’s mixture of English prose, galloping verse in rhymed couplets, and songs in Tagalog. The humor is broad and much of it seems lame, but, from those at one performance who could understand Tagalog, there were appreciative guffaws. Orlando Pabotoy’s Magno, with his Neanderthal grin, suggests a silent movie clown, but he does not tug at the heart. In what seems an odd coupling of styles, Arcenas juxtaposes Asian slapstick aux Three Stooges with a dash of Christopher Street arch. In a recurrent bit, Ramon de Ocampo plays the offstage Clarabelle in a Scarlett O’Hara falsetto seasoned with Mae West ribaldry and Blanche Dubois gestures.

Talent and energy animate the piece, but the characters are stereotypes set in a historical context that is assumed rather than freshly illustrated. The play’s ambitions clearly differ from those of Yellowman. But where Orlandersmith’s work gives us an inside track to a culture, Carter’s adaptation presents the surface of a world that can’t be penetrated without a translation.