Arts & Entertainment ‘Yellowman’ Wins Standing Ovations For Berkeley Rep

By BETSY HUNTON Special to the Planet
Friday January 30, 2004

Yellowman, which opened at Berkeley Repertory Theatre Wednesday night, finished the evening with two standing ovations.  

Two. Standing. 

That’s possibly the main thing you want to know about the production, but there’s some other rather exciting stuff involved, too.  

This is a two-person drama blessed with actors who give mesmerizing performances with what could be a difficult text. Diedre N. Henry (“Alma”) and Clark Jackson (“Eugene”) are seated in separate chairs on a bare stage. With no props and almost no physical interaction they each tell their own version of a relationship which begins in childhood and turns into a love affair destroyed by racial prejudices and stereotypes. That story’s been told before; I’m not at all sure that this one has. 

They are both, by common classification, black. But that’s an outsiders’ classification. Within the black community of South Carolina—and perhaps elsewhere—they belong to different and hostile worlds. Alma, the vivid, emotionally healthier of the two, is “black”—Eugene is “high yellow” and belongs to a “wealthy” family, i.e., they have indoor plumbing and invite people for dinner. 

But the tensions and generations-long rage about the class system within the black world tears his family apart. His father, a handsome, successful black man, cannot forgive his son for being born “yellow.” To his father, Eugene embodies all the slights and deprivations and disappointments in his own life that he blames on his color. 

There is historical evidence that, before emancipation, the children of inter-racial relationships (some perhaps consensual, some most certainly not) were sometimes treated with special favors in terms of educational opportunities and working situations by their white “owners.” Those with special advantages coalesced into a favored social class, still defined as black. It is understandable that such a situation would cause continued pain throughout the generations. 

It is quite possible that the playwright, Dael Orlandersmith, may be the first person to use a popular medium to directly address what is arguably one of the most tragic results of our country’s racial history. And while theater doesn’t reach the wide audience that movies do, it still is not as limited as is the number of people who read the heavy-duty social science books where the subject has, until now, been confined. 

The play is an attack upon the direct damage the slaveowners did. It concerns itself with the damage—carried down the generations—done to the psyche of people who were treated as less than human races that inevitably occurs when two groups live intimately together. (See your local anthropologist for the background material on that assertion).  

This play, seen by an audience largely composed of white people, is an important and exciting event. Berkeley Rep has done us all a memorable favor, whether or not it is the first to raise the subject to a larger audience. 

Yellowman runs through March 7 at the theater, 2025 Addison St. Ticket prices $43 to $55, available at the box office Tuesday through Sunday from noon to 7 p.m. or by telephone at 647-2949 or 888-427-8849.