Questions of skin tone cut deep in 'Yellowman'

TelevisionEntertainmentThe Monkees (tv program)Natural ResourcesPulitzer Prize Awards

Transformed into a New York urban sophisticate, the young woman in Dael Orlandersmith's "Yellowman" breathes in the city as she swings her hips to the sound of her high heels clicking on the pavement, shedding any desire to return to "that thick-heeled, crusty, hot Southern dirt road walk" of her upbringing in South Carolina. "I cannot walk that walk anymore," she says.

Thanks to Orlandersmith's considerable skill at conjuring the sights and smells of a place — primarily the small, dusty, African-American community where palpable tensions build when alcohol and rancor are on hand — there is no question what that world looks or feels like. Currently in a rock solid revival from Greenetree Productions at the newly renovated Stage 773, that stage magic is achieved entirely through the monologues of two actors.

Alma, whom we first meet as a young child, is a "big, fat, funny-lookin' thing" with dark skin that makes her inconsequential in the eyes of her mother, who believes if her people had only "been born rich and high yella" — light-skinned — "they wouldn't have suffered." Alma's best pal and eventual boyfriend is Eugene, whose fairer complexion comes with its own baggage.

Racism within one's own race is a complicated, nuanced thing — Eugene is resented for having it easy; Alma is dismissed as deeply undesirable.

This sort of dynamic is generally part of the larger discussion of race in America, and the play (which was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize in 2002) makes it clear that these distinctions are very real and damaging, passed down like undesirable cultural heirlooms.

Judging by references to "The Monkees" and the "Batman" TV series, the story begins somewhere in the mid-1960s and spans roughly another 10 years as Alma and Eugene navigate a minefield of expectations. The play lives or dies based on the performances, and Deanna K. Reed and J. Israel Greene put forth the kind of good, strong, honest work that long has been the backbone of Chicago theater.

They each portray multiple roles, playing the family and friends who filter through the lives of these characters (Reed fully inhabits her moments as Alma's lumbering mother) and they must do so with unimpeachable credibility as well as some showmanship. Director Jonathan Wilson is smart to keep the production clean and uncluttered (Shaun Renfro's set is little more than a porch and a few benches), all the better to put the focus on the storytelling.

nmetz@tribune.com

Twitter @NinaMetzNews


When: Through Oct. 9

Where: Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave.

Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes

Tickets: $25 at 773-327-5252 or stage773.com

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