By Dael Orlandersmith
Directed by Les Waters
In association with Lorraine Hansberry Theatre
Main Season · Thrust Stage
January 23–March 14, 2004
Running time: 1 hour and 40 minutes, no intermission
Nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 2002, Yellowman is an edgy and provocative exploration of racism within the Black community. Alma, a dark-skinned African-American woman, and her childhood friend Eugene, a light-skinned African-American man, have been life-long friends—yet when their friendship turns to love, the different colors of their skin raise obstacles that become insurmountable. Orlandersmith’s language is lyrical and explosive, exposing both harsh realities and tender yearnings. Though Orlandersmith focuses her laser-like attention on this internalized prejudice, the play also explores how easily we become what we most dislike about our parents, and the pain that arises when our bodies do not match our desires.
Dael Orlandersmith · Playwright
Les Waters · Director
Annie Smart · Scenic & Costume Design
James F. Ingalls · Lighting Design
Nicole Galland · Dramaturg
Lynne Soffer · Dialect Coach
Cynthia Cahill · Stage Manager
Amy Potozkin · Casting Director
Deidrie N. Henry · Alma
Clark Jackson · Eugene
Prologue: from the Artistic Director
One of the most startling myths of modern life is that our individual psychology is somehow divorced from history. In our effort to take full responsibility for our actions (bolstered by every liberation movement since time immemorial) we often forget that our thoughts, feelings and behavior are directly related to larger societal forces that surround and move through us.
An exciting new generation of dramatists is taking on this issue, attempting to penetrate the surface of individual psychology and human relationships to reveal what lies underneath. That subterranean labyrinth, the sum total of our constantly shifting and often contradictory psychic impulses, defines not only who we are in relation to each other but who we are in relation to the world around us.
Dael Orlandermith’s riveting new play, Yellowman, explores certain societal myths through the prism of a single couple. Focusing on an intimate, long-term relationship, Ms. Orlandersmith courses through a wide array of human experience, touching on subjects as volatile as the different ways that African-Americans with different skin tones experience our society to the simple effort of two people attempting to love each other. Alma and Eugene’s story is particular to their racial and class background, but at the end of the day they remain two people trying to hold on, trying to conjure the dream of a shared life with a collective history that both binds and tears.
What better place to watch our actors working on such delicate and impassioned material than on our thrust stage. After the epic sweep of our productions this fall, its nice to have the actors breathing on us again. Thanks for being a part of it all…
“If a Black woman is light-skinned with good hair and good features, then she’s the shit…But a dark-skinned girl with short hair can forget it. And if she has a big nose, then she should just be a nun. But if she has long hair and good features, then her skin color can be overlooked. Long hair really helps out those black ugly girls.”—Darryl, a working-class Black man, as quoted in The Color Complex
“She got that good hair…I like girls with that light-complexioned look, it’s not my fault, I’m a victim of 400 years of conditioning…”—Black Star—“Brown-skin Lady” (a song otherwise extolling dark-skinned women)
“She should have been a boy, then color of skin wouldn’t have mattered so much, for wasn’t her mother always saying that black boys could get along, but that a black girl would never know anything but sorrow and disappointment. But she wasn’t a boy, she was a girl, and color did matter…”—Wallace Thurman, The Blacker The Berry, 1929
“Dark-skinned girls are better than light skin / Light-skinned girls aren’t better than dark skin / I can’t understand you light skin winches…”—Rapper Del, “Dark Skin Girls”
The issue of colorism (bias or prejudice based on skin tone) is deeply entrenched in American Black culture; its roots go back to the beginnings of slavery, and despite the changes wrought by the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the intraracial tension that originally led to colorism has remained nearly unchanged for over 300 years. While for many years the topic of colorism was considered taboo, more has been written about it in recent years, including Midge Wilson, Ronald Hall and Kathy Russell’s fascinating book The Color Complex (1992), which provides an exhaustive exploration of this subject, and Skin/Deep (2004), an anthology of essays on race and complexion edited by Cedric Herring, Verna M. Keith and Hayward Derrick Horton. These two books are the primary sources for this article.
Under slavery, Black women had no right to refuse the sexual advances of their owners (or other White men). The plantation owners often became extremely attached to their light-colored offspring from such unions, and granted them a variety of privileges, from easier domestic slave duties, to freedom and sometimes even an inheritance. As a result, by the War for Independence, mulattoes in the Deep South had gained special status as a Colored class, distinct from and considered superior to the mostly enslaved Blacks. However, in the aftermath of the war, there was a flood of released and escaped slaves, and the mulattoes as a group were afraid they would be associated, in the eyes of the Whites who had given them privileges, with this new class of poor, uncultured, dark-skinned freemen. As an act of social self-preservation, mulattoes became increasingly exclusive about who was considered “one of them”—a distinction based entirely on skin color and the length of time someone had been free. After the Civil War, when freedom as a demarcating quality became obsolete, mulattoes had nothing but skin tone to use to prove themselves a separate elite. Mulatto social clubs with names like the Bon Ton Society and the Blue Vein Society became popular; to join, a person had to be light enough that their veins were visible at the wrist, or, in other cases, lighter in skin color than a paper bag. Churches used the paper-bag test as well; into the early 20th century there were Black churches that painted their doors brown, and worshippers had to have skin color lighter than the door to be invited to join the congregation.
After the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, these practices largely subsided, but the mentality that encouraged them apparently did not. As the writers of The Color Complex amply document, lighter-skinned blacks have virtually always (with a brief exception in the 1960s and ‘70s) been given preferential treatment, both within their own race and in society at large.
Over the years there have been a staggering variety of sociological tests and surveys conducted to evaluate Black self-perception and identity. The Color Complex and Skin/Deep consider many of these. While the authors tend to avoid absolutisms, studies show that in general, lighter-skinned Blacks enjoy better careers, higher income, greater acceptability in mainstream society and higher self-esteem (particularly among women) than their darker-skinned peers. Numerous studies throughout the 20th century offer evidence that even young Black children are conditioned to want to be white, a conditioning that only becomes more deeply entrenched as they get older. The effect is felt more on girls than boys; sociologist Cornelia Porter has evidenced that girls as young as six are twice as sensitive to social issues around skin colors as boys are. The authors of the book Black Rage claim that every Black girl “experiences some degree of shame about her appearance.” In 1990 alone, Black Americans purchased 44 million dollars worth of skin-bleaching products; the first female millionaire in the world was the Black woman who invented a recipe that permanently relaxed “nappy” hair. In a more promising light, according to Skin/Deep, more recent studies show that young Black women express satisfaction in their skin color, share their values in a Black aesthetic and distance themselves from the “White” standards of beauty.
Despite the numerous sociological advantages of lighter skin, one of the essays in Skin/Deep points out that lighter skinned Blacks often face questions of “ethnic legitimacy.” Finding that dark skin is usually perceived to be more ethnically “authentic” than light skin, studies suggest that lighter skinned Blacks are often judged as lacking loyalty and/or racial consciousness. This author points out the paradox of colorism: light skin is considered beautiful, yet light skin is not considered ethnically authentic.
The Color Complex writers have also studied the long history of colorism in the workplace, where lighter-skinned Blacks usually get better jobs, often because their backgrounds have allowed them easier access to either better education and job training, and/or greater social contact with White/mainstream society. However, the first-ever Federal case involving discrimination based on color (as distinct from race) presented the opposite complaint: in 1990 light-skinned Tracy Morrow sued her darker-skinned manager Ruby Lewis, claiming to have been subjected to comments such as, “You need some sun. Life’s been too easy for you. You’re gonna have to work for your position here.”
The media has by and large only further encouraged colorist stereotyping. Pale, keen-featured Black women play sweet romantic heroines; darker-skinned Black men play strong, virile and sometimes violent leads or side-kicks. Almost without exception, every female romantic heroine in an on-screen Black relationship has been lighter than her leading man.
The 50 Blaxploitation films made between 1970 and 1992 “revived the association between dark-skinned men and violence,” according to The Color Complex. All the heroes were violent; all but one (Ron O’Neal, who played Superfly) were also dark. Light-skinned black men have always had a hard time finding work in commercial film, where the majority of Black male roles are defined by virility, strength or violence; on the other hand, except for a period in the 1970s, light-skinned actresses have been the rule in romantic roles. Powerful performers like Queen Latifah, Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey are breaking the race barrier, but it’s Halle Barry who gets the love scenes.
Early rap videos tended to feed off of crude stereotypes of violent, aggressive dark-skinned Black men being adored by Black women who were so pale they could pass as White. “Rarely if ever,” The Color Complex reported in 1992, “are dark-skinned Black women with Negroid features and natural hair depicted in rap videos.” Today this, at least, has changed; music videos now feature women (and men) of all shapes, colors and hairstyles, reflecting the values, or at least the appearance of, multiculturalism. “The stereotypical ‘thick’ black woman…(as described by one Black teenager interviewed for this article)…is becoming more and more visible in music videos.” This is, ironically, largely because rap music from the more racially-segregated Southern states has become a hot commodity. As rap videos from the South become more popular, (dark-skinned) women from the South are becoming more visible and accepted in the media.
Yet current attitudes towards colorism remain complex. Both producers and consumers of mass media interviewed for this article are very opinionated and divergent on the topic. A random sampling of people’s opinions include the following: a young Black man points out that “there are more yellow-skinned actresses, musicians and dancers playing sweet Juliet roles” than there used to be, while a young Algerian woman loves American music videos for their “smaller fixation on White features.” A music industry professional speaks of “the perception of lighter women as more feminine” in the world of “corporate hip-hop,” adding that even when darker-skinned performers are used, the marketing department has a lot to do with the decision. A young White man deeply entrenched in hip hop culture suggests that while colorism has overtly decreased, it is still heightened in subtle ways, and cites a recent interview in The Source with rapper Loon, who said he will not date Black women because they are too high-maintenance; he wants mixed-race or Indian women with straight hair and White features.
Clearly, contemporary attitudes toward skin color are more various and nuanced than they were 300 years ago, but the fundamental issue remains: Many Blacks judge and are judged according to the tone of their skin and the relative “Blackness” of their features. For people whose life opportunities are influenced by this insidious fact, the personal becomes unavoidably political.
Up close with Dael Orlandersmith
Since being commissioned by the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, NJ, Yellowman has been (among other things) a Pulitzer Prize finalist, a winner of the Kennedy Center’s Roger Steven Playwrighting Award, and the recipient of an AT&T:On Stage grant.
The 42-year-old Orlandersmith’s commanding personality comes across clearly in her plays. In the 1990s, her vigorous and visceral solo works Monster, Beauty’s Daughter and The Gimmick, written in lyrical yet occasionally brutal poetry and packed with piercingly vivid characters—all of whom she portrayed herself—garnered her a following in New York’s downtown theatre world.
Having started writing poetry in her teens—a time when, she says, she envisioned herself as “an actor, not a writer”—she learned to bring a theatrical flair to her readings during her four years with the Nuyoricans Poets Café in downtown Manhattan. In 1995, she transformed herself into a writer of solo shows. Orlandersmith’s own poetry is usually narrative in style, so it was not much of a giant step to modify the structure and storytelling, initiate conflict and resolution, and end up with material in essentially dramatic form. The transformation began when she enrolled in acting classes, after dropping out of Hunter College. When she created characters for acting exercises and auditions, she was surprised to find that people inevitably asked who had written such strong pieces. “I was writing drama and wasn’t even aware of it,” she says.
Orlandersmith continued to act, appearing in everything from Hal Hartley’s film Amateur to Romeo and Juliet at the Williamstown Theatre Festival to a Spin City episode. But she soon realized there were few worthy parts for large black women, so she began writing parts for herself, producing her Monster, Beauty’s Daughter and The Gimmick between 1995 and 1998. Though they filled an acting need, the three solo shows were more ambitious projects that, in some ways, synthesized all of Orlandersmith’s creative urges. A frustrated painter and rock guitarist, she strove “to write like a guitar lick or a slash of paint,” she says. For her, early Sam Shepard works like Buried Child captured the vibe she was aiming at: “I wanted the shows to feel like a rock-and-roll concert.”
The connections to art and music are not accidental—both art forms appear as motifs in all three shows, demonstrating, in Orlandersmith’s words, that “all children have an artistic streak, but if it’s not nurtured it can be destroyed.” As she writes in the introduction to the Vintage collection of her solo plays: “There is a clarity within a child’s eyes that will be buried as that child goes into adulthood…I suppose this must happen for the sake of survival…Yet despite all of that, all of us dream. Where do those dreams go?”
Orlandersmith’s writing grew richer and subtler during the years she spent on the solo shows, but from the beginning she wrote with confidence and certainty. “I automatically know the story I want to tell,” she says. “I guide (my characters). I know where I want them to go.” For Yellowman, however, she suddenly found that knowing what she wanted her characters to do wasn’t enough. Birthing this new work was labored and complicated. Orlandersmith toiled over the script for three years. It wasn’t until (McCarter Artistic Director Emily) Mann suggested that Orlandersmith read Mann’s own 1979 Still Life—a multicharacter drama told through overlapping narration and monologues—that Orlandersmith found her way. Orlandersmith confirms that (the Sundance Theatre Program) was also crucial to her work on Yellowman, because the program gave her guidance and room to explore without telling her what to do.
Having found her voice, she let loose, producing hundreds and hundreds of pages, which she then trimmed into a three-hour play. Director Blanka Zizka, McCarter Dramaturg Janice Paran, Orlandersmith and costar Howard Overshown then began shaping the piece for a workshop at the McCarter. (The play was a hit at the McCarter and has since enjoyed successful runs at over half a dozen major theatres around the country.)
She finds beauty in exploring the darker side of human experience, even the hate that—like love—is innate in everyone. “There is humanity within a bleak story,” she says. “We find that humanity by exposing the darkness. I use language as a tool. Just the fact that the story itself is told—and hopefully well—is cause for hope.”
This article is excerpted from Stuart Miller’s profile of Dael Orlandersmith in the July/August 2002 issue of American Theatre magazine, published by Theatre Communications Group.
Gullah / Geechee
“Gullah” and “Geechee” are words used to describe the culture and the language of a community of African slaves’ descendants now inhabiting the Sea Islands and coastal areas stretching from North Carolina to Florida. The slaves were brought to the plantations of the Sea Islands from West Africa based on their ancestors’ known success in cultivating rice. The geographical isolation of the Sea Islands allowed a great degree of independence for the slaves, and they were able to retain elements of their African heritage and forge their own cultural identity as the Gullah people. The language they developed was a hybridization of English and various African dialects, with its own grammar, idiomatic expressions and vocabulary, and it was transmitted orally to the second generation of slaves as their mother tongue. After the Civil War, many of the freed slaves remained on the Sea Islands in small farming and fishing communities, and they outnumbered the White population in much of the region until 1956, when bridges to the islands were built, bringing an influx of resorts, recreation and gated communities. In the ensuing years, the Gullah have had to negotiate between accepting the American mainstream and preserving their unique culture.
“We are in the Gullah area and we grew up around Gullah. Now in all honesty, my mother didn’t speak Gullah, but as a child growing up, and with friends going to school, you tend to get in with a group and imitate or get right into the group and do little things they do. But my mother would always chastise me when I got too much into the Gullah…I would try to make excuses that one of my other buddies talked like that or somebody else talked like that. Got a lot of slaps in the face because of it.”—Samuel R. Brown, Jr., St. Helena Island (qtd. in The Legacy of Ibo Landing)