"There's a fluidity to the heat in South Carolina," Deidrie N. Henry announces as she brings out the fluidity in Dael Orlandersmith's language, lingering lovingly on clustered adjectives and lending pounding emphasis to percussive phrases such as "she lay on the hot tar road panting -- panting like a dog."
As openings go, it's just a bit of scene-setting, and also misleading. You talk about the weather when you have nothing else to talk about, and Orlandersmith has a great deal to say. At the same time, this heat is all-important: the heat of hard work, of sex, and most of all of hate. Yellowman is a play about prejudice, not simple white-versus-black racism but insidious hatred between African Americans of lighter and darker shades.
Sitting on straight-backed wooden chairs on Berkeley Rep's otherwise bare Thrust Stage, a rectangle of cloudy blue behind them, Henry and Clark Jackson (both in their Berkeley Rep debuts) trace the lives of lovers Eugene and Alma from elementary school in the '60s into adulthood. Each has one light-skinned and one dark-skinned parent, but Alma lives with her single mother, has to slop the hogs before school, and is of a medium shade, while light-skinned Eugene lives with both his parents in a nice house "in the city limits."
The way the actors inhabit the characters is all the more striking because the story is more told than played. Jackson is all nerves, boyish enthusiasm, and unfocused energy as Eugene. Henry's body language is subtler, but all the more transformative as she traces Alma from sullen teenage standoffishness into the self-satisfied strut of a woman coming into her own. She is especially animated as Alma's mother Odelia, who does her best to instill in Alma her sense of inadequacy as a large dark woman.
While the adult Alma and Eugene mythologize their parents, their younger selves despise them for their dark skin, their size, their drunkenness, and their "Gullah/Geechie" accents. These parents hate them in return for trying to be anything other than their color. When Eugene's friend Wyce tells him how darker-skinned folk like Eugene's father hate them, he is just trying to stir up trouble, but he also isn't wrong. Worse, the people who resent Eugene and call him a rich, soft, high-yellow pretty boy aren't really wrong either -- he is indeed soft at his core, tentative and aimless, and his very aimlessness is a privilege born of his relative comfort -- not because he's light, but because his dark-skinned father worked hard to build a good life for his family.
Orlandersmith's lush language isn't naturalistic; certain repeated phrases are as likely to come from one character's mouth as the other. Yellowman is her first non-solo piece, but it's also almost a play in verse. In some of the play's most effective moments Alma and Eugene are gruelingly out of synch -- she gloriously reinventing herself while he has trouble inventing himself in the first place; he feeling blissfully connected while she feels panicked, ugly, and inadequate -- but despite the disconnect, their tag-team accounts serve the overall rhythm of the play.
There are moments of humor and tenderness throughout, but the play is best at its most excruciating. Yellowman is a hard play, beautiful and ugly not by turns but all at once. And this masterful, bare-bones production (presented in association with the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre) perfectly embodies the eloquence and directness of the text.