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Theater Review: Trinity’s Yellowman

Friday, March 04, 2011


The bitter seed at the core of Yellowman, Dael Orlandersmith's 2002 play which opens this week at Trinity Rep, tastes of the conflicted reality of race. When two African-American children meet on a school playground in South Carolina's Lowcountry in the late 1960s and become friends (and ultimately lovers), their complex sensibilities about their relative darkness and resulting identity and status divide them.

One might argue that this play, written for two actors who not only portray the couple from innocent childhood to weary maturity, but also a set of family and friends who surround them, might suffer from its own confusion over its identity. And this production, directed by Laurie Carlos, is unable to harness the story into a place of clarity and consistency.

Boy meets girl

At one level, it's a simple narrative of boy meets girl, and were it only that the play began with that. But the opening 10 minutes of Yellowman feature Trinity resident actor Joe Wilson, Jr., as Eugene and Brown/Trinity Rep MFA actor Rachel Christopher as Alma, instructing the audience in overlapping monologues about their essences (hers: gender, dark skin color, and oppression at the hands of her mother; his: gender, light skin color, and oppression at the hands of his father).

These long speeches are choreographed with stylized movements that crop up throughout the two-hour, intermissionless production in variations (hers: sweeping arms; his: an odd rearing-back in a chair, legs lifted; theirs: mimes of traditional southern shuffle step dances). They're also underscored with a panting, staccato stutter-breath, and the actors themselves echo this in places.

This is a lot to stitch together, and despite both actors' precision (and the pleasing timbres of their voices, both separately and in contrast), the opening feels preachy. This is a play about ideas, this speechifying makes abundently clear before the characters even begin to inhabit their own action. It's about identities, about big ideas. Pay attention. Which, unfortunately, makes one want to do anything but.

Simple storytelling wins

What delight when the play sheds its capital-P purpose and tells a bit of story. Watching Eugene and Alma meet as kids feels truthful and fresh, and both actors radiate the sunny bluster of child's play (if the actors playing the girls in Trinity's Crucible could have taken a note from Wilson Jr. and Christopher...). Everything is just right in these scenes, from sidelong, glowing glances to uninhibited body language. This makes their subsequent movement into adolescence and toward each other sexually, equally charming -- human and utterly real.

For the rest of the play, which oscillates between arty exposition and simple interactions, one increasingly yearns for a revision that would strip away the contrivances (not to mention that underscoring and 30-year-old Twyla Tharp movement) and present a play where a boy and a girl fall in love then mess it up because people won't let them forget that their skin colors differ.

Because sometimes it makes sense to trust an audience to feel the themes emanate from two characters meeting, loving, fighting, separating, and ultimately surviving/perishing. Another play should enter Trinity's canon, entrust its characters to two talented actors, and set them free to show us their story. We're able to figure the rest out for ourselves.

Yellowman by Dael Orlandersmith, directed by Laurie Carolos, running through April 3 in the Dowling Theater, 201 Washington St, Providence. Reservations/more information at 351-4242 and online at www.trinityrep.com.

Photos: Mark Turek

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