Orange Tree Theatre have kicked off their new season of productions with the most explosive, powerful and poignant play. Daela Orlandersmith was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and Drama Desk Award nominee for Yellowman. Twenty years on, in the play’s first major revival in the UK since 2004, this piece of theatre certainly lives up to, or rather surpasses expectations.
Yellowman is an exceptional piece of writing which follows the journey of Eugene (portrayed by Aaron Anthony) and Alma (portrayed by Nadine Higgin) from childhood to adulthood, exploring the strains of their relationship which, as stated in the programme, betrays ‘fault-lines in the world at large’. The key fault-line explored in this play is colourism, a form of prejudice based on skin tone, usually (though not always) within the same race. When it comes to colourism the play is brutally honest, including the use of racist and colourist slurs. Even within the context of the play the use of such language might come as a shock to the system, but is a necessary contribution to a candid reflection on cultural tensions not only relevant to the setting of the play, but also to modern society.
Watching a theatre performance, especially one so thought-provoking, one tends to expect the audience to remain quiet for the duration of the play. Yellowman broke those boundaries. The atmosphere created by the actors and the language was overwhelming. Direct address to the audience during monologues made me, and I’m sure the rest of the room, feel as though the performers were not acting a dramatic performance, but were genuinely telling me the story of their lives. It felt intimate. Anthony and Higgins’ performances transported us into the worlds of their characters with what seemed like an effortless ease. We cried with them and laughed with them. We wanted the best for them, and each time we could see their lives about to take a worse turn I genuinely felt knots in my stomach. As the theatre was in the round I found myself catching audience members nudging each other and sharing grins. I heard gasps, whoops of laughter, shouts of encouragement, and quite a few sniffles.
Additionally to their main roles, Anthony and Higgin portrayed a number of other characters. At times multi-roling can become confusing for an audience, particularly when, as in this case, there are no costume changes. However, both Anthony and Higgin smoothly transitioned between each role, taking on startlingly different personas, adapting their voices and bodies with such skill that no additional sign of a character change such as difference in costume was necessary. To keep energy and pace in such a long, emotionally demanding two-person play is a difficult feat, which both Anthony and Higgin must be commended for.
At first when I saw the bare stage, devoid of props or set I thought ‘oh, well I’ve seen this before’, but boy was I wrong. You can tell that Diane Page put her heart and soul into directing this piece. Having recently won the 2021 JMK Award for her production of Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act, Page is certainly a director to look out for. I recommend reading her interview with Paul Miller, available in the programme.
This is a play which truly spoke to its audience. Not only did I leave the theatre having been guided through a rollercoaster of emotions, but I learnt a lot. As someone who has never experienced any kind of racial or colourist prejudice myself I cannot speak on behalf of audience members who are people of colour and may well have faced similar experiences to those of the characters in the play. What I can say though is that no matter who you are and what your background is, this play is a must-watch.