Discrimination comes in all shapes and sizes, but the question asked by Dael Orlandersmith's Pulitzer-nominated poetic drama is: What is the color of hate? Though it deals with black-on-black racism, a rarely broached subject, this scorching memory play attacks its theme with a raw passion that never cringes from its uncomfortable truth. In the dismally small world of Alma and Eugene, skin color is what counts. Alma is dark-skinned and big-boned, in the tradition of the Gullah women slaves who worked alongside men in the rice and cotton fields of the New World, while Eugene is light, small-boned, and "yellow." Suspicion, scorn, hatred, and fear of the "other" infect the relationships of friends, lovers, and even between children and parents. Eugene's dark-skinned father has nothing but hatred and scorn for his son, whom he disdains for the supposedly easy life the boy has inherited from his mother and her equally light-skinned father. Alma's mother blames Alma's darkness for her father's leaving. Self-hate quickly follows; Alma feels ugly because she is dark, while Eugene feels guilty for being light. The lack of motivation, the self-defeating behavior, and the alcoholism that result from this generational handoff of bias and negative perceptions culminate in an inevitable tragedy that underscores this searingly painful duet for two actors.
Shirley Jo Finney directs the play, which mostly takes the form of monologues, with enormous power and insight, letting the pain seep out, not attempting to ameliorate the shock and horror of the verbal cruelty, eviscerating sadness, and tragedy beyond anything the Greeks could have imagined. Deidrie N. Henry and Chris Butler are skilled players, engaging and versatile, who essay all the characters in their story—Alma and Eugene, their mothers, fathers, a grandfather, and school friends—with considerable humor and talent. Henry has a lightness and charm that is endearing and infectious. When she bravely breaks away from her Gullah-Geechee isolation to attend Hunter College, she convincingly takes us along on a spirited dance through New York's liveliest neighborhoods. The connection between Alma and Eugene is potent and totally believable, although we know this is a doomed relationship. Scott Siedman's simple setting and Kathi O'Donohue's subtle lighting memorably enhance the experience.
"Yellowman," presented by and at the Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., L.A. Thu.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. Feb. 11-Mar. 26. $25. (323) 663-1525.