Yellowman – Orange Tree Theatre, London

Reviewer: Richard Maguire

Writer: Dael Orlandersmith

Director: Diane Page

Dael Orlandersmith’s 2004 play Yellowman has aged well, and its examination of colourism within the black communities in South Carolina is still pertinent for the 2020s. Colourism seeks to privilege lighter-skinned black people in favour of dark-skinned black people. The more like white people black people are, the more they will be accepted in wider society. It’s a subject that Candice Carty-Williams subtly explores in her 2019 novel Queenie, soon to be dramatised on the BBC.

In Yellowman Nadine Higgin plays Alma a dark-skinned woman, who, when growing up in poverty, is told by her mother that her only chance of a different life is to marry a light-skinned man. Her mother tells her that that no man wants a ‘big’ dark-skinned woman and at one point in her childhood Alma is given a magic root to eat to make her skin lighter and to remove her curves.

Higgin is an assured Alma, inhabiting the role completely and plainly communicating the shame that Alma feels. One of her earliest memories is of her mother running down the road after Alma’s father, begging him to stay. Alma is pained and humiliated by her mother’s desperation and by the slap slap slap of her mother’s bare feet on the road. To avoid a life like her mother, Alma surrenders to the American dream. She studies hard at school and she works hard in her job in Woolworth’s. An escape to New York beckons.

Despite her mother’s warnings that no man will want her, Alma does have a boyfriend: Eugene, the ‘yellowman’ of the title. When they are at school, playing Batman with their friend Altan, they don’t see the various tones of their skin. But their idyllic childhood is shattered when their mothers, Alma’s poached in gin, Eugene’s swimming in bourbon, point out the differences. Against all odds, Eugene and Alma manage to make a go of things, but Altan’s dark skin means that he is ignored.

Arron Anthony is Eugene, and he excels in the role, caught between youth and childhood, his teenage energy finding no outlet. Anthony increasingly begins to prowl Niall McKeever’s simple wooden stage as he contends with the trap that his parents, and society as a whole, have set for him. He simmers with rage and alcohol.

Orlandersmith’s script is lyrical but clear. However, out of her two characters, Alma seems the more real. Alma’s relationship with cosmetics and clothes, her newfound sassiness on the streets on Manhattan and her growing sense of self-worth all give her character depth. In comparison, Eugene is less finely drawn, and his typical masculine reactions of fight and flight lack nuance and his revelations about masculinity aren’t as eye-opening as those about femininity from Alma.

The first half flashes by and, although Alma and Eugene’s happiest days are always ruined by tragedy, their innocence as children and then as naive lovers is achingly portrayed with the help of Diane Page’s lucid direction. The second half, though, is too dramatic as if Orlandersmth thinks that the lives of her characters are not hard enough. As the stakes become higher, the play loses its fizz.

But as the first play in artistic director Paul Miller’s final season at the theatre, the Orange Tree has hit the ground running. With such strong acting from its two performers, Yellowman feels like the first hit of the autumn.

Runs until 8 October 2022

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The Reviews Hub - London

The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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