Ferocious.

That was the only word I could pick out above the sober mumbling in the few minutes it took to exit the Pittsburgh Public Theater after a performance of “Yellowman.”

Usually people are more chatty.

The Pulitzer Prize nominated play is about racism within the black community.

The material doesn’t lend itself to the kind of bubbly conversation that takes place on the way to the car afterward. You need time to mull this one over. Perhaps on the ride home, out of earshot of people who might not know the context.

Along with a general social awareness required in going to the theater in the first place, comes the common sense of treading lightly around touchy race issues that can be uncomfortable to bear.

Playwright Dael Orlandersmith charges forth with a poetic vengeance to tell a kind of love story.

Her multi-character play is performed by two actors on a bare stage.

Alma and Eugene grow up together in a section of South Carolina marked by the Gullah culture, descendants of West African slaves who maintain a centuries-old dialect — and are scorned by light-skinned blacks.

Alma grows up hating herself because her dark skinned mother hates her for the way she is — big boned and black.

Eugene grows up being hated by his huge, mountain-of-a-man father because Eugene’s lighter skin means another man probably fathered him.

In their beginnings, Alma and Eugene have young eyes that see past skin color. They haven’t learned to hate.

Both actors, Inga Ballard and Clark Jackson, are at their best when they play their parents who shape the perceptions the two youths have of themselves and their worlds.

Are they predestined to fail?

Alma breaks loose and escapes to New York City to go to college. There she begins to find herself and learns a new way to walk through her life.

Eugene visits on weekends and proves that his love for her is grounded in her worth as a human being.

The two are sucked back to North Carolina for his grandfather’s funeral, where the climax of the play takes place.

Yes, it is ferocious, culminated by two black acts of deep-seeded hatred by two beautiful people.

This work of art is supposed to make you stand up and take notice.

It does.

According to artistic director Tedd Pappas, “the play shines a light on a world many of us would never notice ... It transports an audience far beyond the borders of complacency and comfort.”

Before Orlandersmith was a playwright, she was a poet who acted out her poems with dramatic flair at public readings.

The dialogue in “Yellowman” is lyrical and poetic.

I truly got a sense of movement. One writer described Orlandersmith’s words as “singing.”

The motion gives a fluidity that carries this play onward.

Orlandersmith told American Theatre Magazine 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.”

Performances of “Yellowman” continue through Dec. 4 at the O’Reilly Theater in downtown Pittsburgh.

For tickets, phone (412) 316-1600 or buy tickets online at www.ppt.org.

(Bob McDowell is a columnist for the New Castle News.)



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