Shades of the past

Jan 21, 2004 at 12:00 am

It has become an unspoken tradition at the Detroit Repertory Theatre to use the second play of the season — which runs during the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday and February’s Black History Month — to celebrate African-American culture. Dael Orlandersmith’s Yellowman — a play that made its author a Pulitzer Prize finalist — fits the bill perfectly. Not only is the play rich in the history and mythology of black America, it’s moreover an affecting story that asks whether any of us can free ourselves from the emotional inheritance our families leave us.

Yellowman is the story of two childhood friends, Gene (Bernard Owens Jr.) and Alma (Cecilia Forman), who fall in love, though their match is discouraged by their families. Alma’s mother, a blue-black Gullah woman, tells her she’s too dark, fat and uneducated to deserve light-skinned Gene. Gene is harassed by his father, and perpetually dogged by his friend, Wyce, who insists he can do better.

As with any good Romeo and Juliet story, the forces behind the feud run deep into family history. Gene’s relationship with his alcoholic parents is strained, largely because of his dark-skinned father’s resentment. Gene’s father and light-skinned mother were married against the wishes of Gene’s grandfather, who never forgave them.

This makes Alma’s poverty and Gullah heritage all the more provocative for Gene’s relatively well-off family. The Gullah, or Geechee, are former slaves who have long called the South Carolina and Georgia coasts home to their distinctive culture. Alma’s father was a drunken philanderer who “rode” her mother. She cannot forgive her mother’s slavish devotion to this man or her conviction that he will return. Certainly Gene and Alma are two young people with a lot to overcome.

But the delights of love give them hope as they fight intra-racial animosities, which makes for a gallant love story. They meet as children, unaware of social forces, and when those forces intrude on their lives, their light-hearted antics come to a crashing halt. The cruelty of adults and friends casts a pall over their romance, and they are led away from each other by those close to them. Alma’s mother loads her down with chores while Gene is prodded by Wyce into a world of light-skinned girls and brown whiskey.

Eventually, Alma takes flight to New York, throws off her rural accent and country clothes and learns her “walk.” Gene inherits his grandfather’s estate and is no longer tied down to his family. They prepare to make their new life together, away from their troubled past. But are they really free of their despair and anger?

That’s the main question asked in this thought-provoking and spectacularly moving play.

Using an unusual but effective storytelling technique, Orlandersmith forces the two actors to muster up convincing dramatic performances in all the play’s roles. For instance, when Gene meets his estranged grandfather — with Owens handling both parts — he cries in wonder, “I see my face looking back at me.” Orlandersmith evidently has fun with this form. At one point, Owens plays Wyce, and Wyce, jokingly, pretends to be another character. Yet it’s never too much to take.

Yellowman’s theme is the burdens of inheritance. But it’s not just about melanin or social standing. Orlandersmith has a tragic view of other traits, such as alcoholism, depression or abusiveness, that we loathe in our parents — yet see in ourselves. In Yellowman, each actor begins by playing both the parents and the innocent children, and then creates an adult character that is a synthesis of the two. We see the rage of Gene’s father in him or the despair of Alma’s mother in her.

The play is brilliantly directed by the talented Tim Rhoze, and the craft in this production is effective. The cadence and timbre of many monologues produces something approaching a jazz poetry reading. Burr Huntington’s excellent sound design capitalizes on this, fading in the soul and jazz this fluid language is steeped in. And instead of the curtains opening on the high-key sets veteran Rep theatergoers are used to, the curtains remain open on the stunning set — designed by Tim Rhoze and Bruce Millan and beautifully executed by Harry Wetzel — as patrons file into the theater. When the house plunges into darkness, dimly discernible figures take the stage and soft lights bathe the actors in luscious blues and deep purples, suggesting a somber sunset. And the talented and versatile actors give powerhouse performances that drive the story forward.

Anybody who was confused or outraged by the social roles forced on them while maturing into adulthood will find a rich and meaningful play arguing that the “undesirable traits” our parents bequeath us are much more than skin deep.

Michael Jackman is the copy editor of Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]