Shades of perception

Mixed Blood Theatre’s production of “Yellowman” focuses on skin privilege

When they first become playground pals, “Yellowman” characters Eugene and Alma invent a game that simply involves lots and lots of running. This game usually whisks them away to exotic imaginary locales where even the most dangerous predators can be dodged just so long as you keep running.

“Come on, Alma!” shouts Eugene as they sprint in place on stage. “Don’t let those vultures get you!”

It seems these vultures exist outside of childhood amusement as well. While Alma is a young black girl with darker skin, Eugene is her lighter-skinned, “yellow man” confidant. And, though seemingly infallible together, they are both stuck in the clutches of 1960s South Carolina, surrounded by a looming pack of disapproving, abusive figures who wage war over hue.

In “Yellowman,” this brand of internal prejudice burdens both sides of the tracks. A complex exploration of a lower-class black community, it zeros in on two main dividends. Those with darker skin, called “geechees,” are at best seen as especially hardworking and fearless, but, at worst, uneducated and ugly. “Gullahs,” those of a lighter skin tone, suffer under assumptions of sissiness and privilege.

Amid this conflict lays the bond between Eugene and Alma, childhood friends who inevitably fall into a star-crossed romance. They are each other’s escapes, but only to a certain point. “Yellowman” is not a love story; instead, it is a cautionary tale of how such trivialities can separate even the strongest of soul mates.

Written by Dael Orlandersmith, “Yellowman” premiered in 2002 and went on to become a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize that same year.

Now, directed by Marion McClinton, it opens Mixed Blood Theatre’s 2006-2007 main stage appropriately. For a company devoted to promoting cultural pluralism and equality, “Yellowman” is a hard-hitting first choice in its unapologetically bold exposé of the boundaries that taint these idealisms within modern American society.

Both Regina Marie Williams and Thomas W. Jones II are so phenomenally brilliant in their range, it is often difficult to remember there are only two actors conquering a broad spectrum of characters and their shifting ages and emotions.

Williams gives a commanding performance not only as the fierce, tough-as-nails Alma, but also as her destructive, hard-drinking mother Odelia.

Jones is equally versatile, playing Eugene all the way from early wide-eyed innocence to his tragic fall from grace at the play’s conclusion. He also takes on just about everybody else, including both his own alcoholic, differently-skinned parents and his shifty “fellow yellow” Weiss.

The set they perform on is thankfully simple, comprised of plank-like boards raised onto a platform. “Yellowman’s” only two props are a wooden chair and a box, appropriately placed on either side of the stage to symbolically separate the two. Otherwise, Williams and Jones are left to make the most of their voices and bodies, and do so to a powerful extent.

Thanks to Orlandersmith’s smart, poetic monologues and the flawless performances of Williams and Jones, “Yellowman” is an accomplished, brutally honest portrait that never gets too preachy. Certain parts can be frustrating in their intensity, including an especially melodramatic ending.

In the play’s refusal to resolve, however, it drives

home the necessary cold, hard truth. We can either rebel against or succumb to society’s vultures.