Rep Stage presents Yellowman, an intensely powerful love story between two childhood friends from a Gullah community in South Carolina Lowcountry, written by Dael Orlandersmith. Kasi Campbell directs this highly emotional production, where the characters must struggle through a world of hate that stems from race, class, and social prejudice.
Scenic Designer Terry Cobb keeps the stage itself relatively barren and austere; two simple chairs sit next to wooden slats that represent houses on either side of a dirt road. This winding road is shown on a sheer backdrop, on which projected photographs illustrate different settings, such as Spanish moss that is so commonly found in the South, concrete buildings for New York City, and many others. Lighting design by Dan Covey is particularly ambitious, as it is in constant motion, following the characters and taking on a stark or soft quality, depending on the mood. Covey favors pale yellows and blues, which help to create a dim, somber atmosphere. Neil McFadden rounds out the stage with sound effects such as children playing, chirping crickets, and rumbling trains. Costume Designer Jessica Welch dresses the character of Alma in a simple gray skirt and purple top, and the wealthier character of Eugene in a refined button-down shirt and trousers.
Alma (Kelly Renee Armstrong) and Eugene (Jon Hudson Odom) begin the show with short narratives about their parents, Alma impersonating her “dark, big, awkward” mother with a perfect Gullah accent, and Eugene his “jet-black” father, who brutalizes his son for being light-skinned. These characters both have tumultuous relationships with their parents, and find relief in a strong friendship forged in childhood. Alma, the daughter of an impoverished, alcoholic mother, sticks by Eugene while he endures bullying and name-calling because of his lighter skin and richer status. This intra-racial prejudice is the core issue of the play, and follows them through into puberty and young-adulthood. As friendship turns into love, the couple must face harsh judgment from everyone, including themselves.
While the play itself is enticing and poignant, the real delight for me was watching the actors in their element – both of whom are extremely talented. The cast only includes two people, but both of them take on multiple characters, drastically transforming in an instant as their central character recalls family members and peers. Odom switches from Eugene’s harsh, brooding father to his fragile and feminine mother in the blink of an eye, and the extreme changes in movements, mannerisms, and tone-of-voices are astounding. Armstrong is equally impressive as Alma, who effortlessly takes on the thick accent and hunched stature of her mother, before returning to her softer self. This shared ability of having such a vast range of characteristics really is fascinating, and the actors make a magnificent pair, working off each other through a powerful chemistry.
I do wish there would have been an intermission. The subject matter is extremely intense, and sitting through such severe passion for an extended period of time can be emotionally exhausting and overwhelming. That being said, I have no idea how these fine actors found the strength and stamina to actually perform it. Of all the actors I have had the pleasure of watching this year, Kelly Renee Armstrong and Jon Hudson Odom have my upmost respect.
Incredibly powerful and hauntingly real, Yellowman will no doubt stay with me for a very long time. Perhaps forever. Don’t miss it!
Running Time: 135 minutes, with no intermission.
Watch a video preview of Yellowman.