NOTE: The following review dates from May 2004 and this production's earlier run at Liverpool and London's Hampstead Theatre. For current casting information, see performance listings.
Like Sebastian Barry's Whistling Pysche, recently premiered at the Almeida, Yellowman unfolds as a series of intertwining monologues from two characters. But Dael Orlandersmith's memory play is at once more accessible, less densely textured and ultimately far more powerful.
As it intricately weaves a thoughtful, reflective and poetic drama out of the story it charts of the romantic progress of two black childhood sweethearts in a small South Carolina town, St Stephen, in the 1960s, they enact not just themselves at different periods of their lives, but also other members of their families. It's a kind of Stones in His Pockets, but with fewer jokes. From their first sighting of each other as respectively second and fourth graders, the dark-skinned Alma (Cecilia Noble) and the lighter-skinned Eugene (Kevin Harvey) instantly become friends. Later, at 14, her developing breasts awaken his 16-year-old desires. Her departure for the big city of New York to study at Hunter College enforces their separation, but far more ultimately cataclysmic is the death of his grandfather, and the violent fissures it exposes in Eugene's relationship with his father.
But there are also dark undercurrents within their own feelings about themselves - and the monologue device, which ideally gives shape and form to expressing their doubts, has Alma, for instance, who sees herself as "dark and big", praying to be "light and small". Eugene, too, has a cross to bear in being lighter skinned: the resentment of his father, who isn't.
In this painful, disturbing portrait of damaged lives, Orlandersmith's play exposes and provokes hidden feelings of internalised racism. But though the subject is sometimes earnest, Noble and Harvey act it with lightness and grace, conviction and power.
Indhu Rubasingham's production, played out in front of Liz Ascroft's atmospheric clapboard house, is alive to the changing moods of a play in the textured lighting of Chris Davey and the musical punctuation of Paul Englishby.
- Mark Shenton