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Skins of the fathers 

Yellowman is more than just skin-deep

The sight of contrasting skin color fuels the conflicts of Dael Orlandersmith's Yellowman. In the fiery production at Theatre in the Square's Alley Stage, a pair of childhood sweethearts in a small South Carolina town pursue a romance despite their differences in pigmentation. The young lovers face racial tensions much older than they are and stir deeply rooted hostilities involving family and class. Yellowman even features a dinner party reminiscent of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, only with angry undercurrents replacing the urbane humor.

All race-based animosity contains an element of nonsensical futility, implying that humans can never see past each other's surface. The racism in Yellowman is especially bitter since all of the characters are black. In exploring the enmity between lighter-skinned "red" or "high-yellow" African-Americans and darker ones, Orlandersmith never flinches from revealing the destructive consequences of both external and internalized hatred.

Two remarkably impressive young actors, Jade M. Lambert-Smith and Will Cobbs, take on all the roles in the play, which focuses on "dark," poor Alma and "yellow," middle-class Eugene from childhood to early adulthood. Lambert-Smith and Cobbs portray the kids as "color-blind" playmates, romping around pretending to be superheroes or singing "The Monkees" theme song.

The children's parents, however, prove all too conscious of their differences as they grow up. Alma's mother, Odelia, warns her against befriending light-skinned people and, in fits of misdirected self-loathing, ridicules Alma for her big body and dark complexion. Orlandersmith writes lyrically about generations of abused, dark women who labor alongside men, speak in "their Geechie/Gullah/Ball 'n' Chain voices" and see themselves as unworthy of happiness.

Eugene faces the contempt of his father, Robert, an intimidating, dark-skinned man who feels mocked by his son's complexion since the boy takes after his lighter mother. In other circumstances Robert might be a role model: By working harder than anyone else, Robert has risen above the prejudices of others to secure a good income and nice house. But his racial obsession leaves him so hardened, he's practically monstrous, and the boy becomes an innocent pawn in the cold war between Robert and the light-skinned relatives of Eugene's mother.

Directed by Carol Mitchell-Leon, Yellowman finds its punch with vividly drawn characters. Cobbs moves so gracefully between Eugene's high, vulnerable speaking voice and his father's imperious rumble that it's like having two different men on stage at once.

Despite its heavy subject matter, Yellowman finds some humorous moments, especially when Alma and Eugene date in high school. Eugene finds himself painfully attracted to girls, and Alma proves furiously jealous at his first choices. "All light-skinned girls are bitches!" she exclaims petulantly. Hopes rise when Eugene takes up with Alma, but the couple face such pressures -- particularly when Alma gets a full scholarship to a New York college -- that you have little faith in love conquering all. By the last scenes, the characters struggle against so many undercurrents -- alcohol, Oedipal instincts, petty family cruelties -- that Yellowman feels positively Faulknerian.

Theatre in the Square's Alley Stage persistently proves to have more guts and commitment to provocative scripts than you might expect from a suburban playhouse. A pair of my favorite productions of the past two years -- Jesus Hopped the "A" Train in 2004 and Take Me Out in 2005 -- were produced there, and Yellowman (a Pulitzer Prize nominee) earns a place in that company.

Yellowman barely mentions white people, although white racism clearly serves as the unspoken source of the play's tensions. Implicitly, bigoted whites treated lighter blacks, if not equally, then less unequally, setting African-Americans against each other. Yellowman speaks forcefully to one of the most tragic aspects of minority oppression: It turns the downtrodden against one another.

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