Exploring subtler shades of prejudice

Special to The Times

In the mid-1980s, Dael Orlandersmith was a struggling actress in New York. But even when she found a casting call for black women, she hated most of the roles she read for.

“A lot of stuff I auditioned for I didn’t want to do,” says the fast-talking New Yorker. “They wanted black junkie prostitutes. How many ways can you say ‘ho’? There simply wasn’t any work. I’m not America’s version of eye candy, and I can’t sing or dance.”

So Orlandersmith created her own roles, working a string of day jobs while she wrote dialogues for a small universe of characters, which she began performing as one-woman, multi-role plays.

“I needed the work and I wanted to show people that I can act,” she says.

Orlandersmith’s “Liar, Liar” opened in New York in 1994, and since then her work has gained increasing acclaim, with her searing drama “Yellowman” becoming a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2002. It was also her first play with more than one actor.


“I wanted to get out of writing one-person plays,” says Orlandersmith, who won an Obie Award for “Beauty’s Daughter” in 1995. “I didn’t want to be on a stage by myself. Solo actors become very indulgent actors. Nobody is that interesting.”

Since its debut at Princeton’s McCarter Center, “Yellowman” has been performed around the country, most recently at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, where it runs through March 7.

Like many of Orlandersmith’s earlier works, “Yellowman” follows the travails of a young woman trying to escape a brutal and suffocating home life. Only this time the motivating force of the drama is black-on-black bigotry, the chasm between light-skinned blacks and dark-skinned blacks in a small South Carolina town.

Alma and Eugene are childhood friends. She is dark; he is light, “high yellow” in the Gullah/Geechie dialect that many of the characters speak in the play. The two eventually become lovers, and the story chronicles their harrowing struggle to define themselves as individuals when even their own families classify them by skin tone. “Black, ugly fat thing,” Alma’s dark mother calls her. “High yella” Eugene’s dark father barks at his son.

The two actors playing Alma and Eugene (Deidrie N. Henry and Clark Jackson), as well as a host of other roles, sit or stand on opposite sides of the stage for the entire play, tantalizingly close but separated by an unbridgeable gulf.

“I really wanted to look at both sides,” Orlandersmith says. “No one should get off, whether it’s black people or white people. People take on the very bias that is put on them. Every group of people does this. In the black community lighter-skin people have been made to feel guilty. Lighter-skin men are treated as punks. They have to fight even harder to prove that they’re black. The bottom line is self-hate. It’s the kind of thing that makes Italian or Jewish chicks get nose jobs. It’s not simply a color thing.”

Art fueled by experience

Orlandersmith, 44, grew up in East Harlem (her father was a tailor and her mother a phone operator) but spent summers with relatives in South Carolina, where she became familiar with two light-skinned families who kept intermarrying to keep their complexions fair.

“The play is loosely based on this gumbo of folks,” says Orlandersmith, who now lives in New York’s East Village. “It’s not an autobiographical play. With one-woman plays people assume everything is about you. Sometimes the imagination is just as fertile.”

Nevertheless, her own experiences have fueled Orlandersmith’s art. For example, the artist, who describes herself as neither light nor dark, recalls hitting it off with a light-toned man several years ago only to see his interest wane after she met his fair-hued family. It’s not me, he tried to explain, it’s my family. Then it is you, she shot back, if you go along.

“I also see it in my line of work as an actor,” she continues. “Look at the black actresses and singers who get all the attention: Jada Pinkett, Halle Berry, Beyonce. They’re lovely, but there are no darker-skin women working. And darker-skin actors only get roles in action movies. Dark skin equals violence.”

Orlandersmith admits to having been more than a little nervous about how African Americans would respond to the play. “I was scared,” she says. “But black people have been very supportive. I only got a couple of angry letters.”

And the play certainly seems to have won over critics.

“A powerful, lyrical play ... a tale of racism that takes us into the very heart of the human need to feel superior or inferior,” the Oakland Tribune wrote about the Berkeley production. “The play is absolutely incandescent,” added the Contra Costa Times, “weaving tragedy out of jarringly bright colors and creating a picture that snaps into sharp focus at the same time it seems almost incomprehensible. It is a powerful piece of theater that plies the frightening backwaters of human nature and delivers a tale that has an enormous wallop.”

Orlandersmith says theater companies around the country have expressed an interest in staging the play, and a production is in the works in London.

“ ‘Yellowman’ is doing well all over the country,” says Orlandersmith, several of whose plays have been published. “I live modestly, but I can now make a living as a playwright.”

Which means that she can continue to limn the bleak beauty of the marginal characters whose lives she brings so ferociously to the stage. “I love people who don’t connect, outsiders,” she says. “I’m interested in the darker aspects of human nature. We’re not at home with what’s dark. All you have to do is listen to yourself. The stuff that makes us uncomfortable is the stuff we should pay attention to.”

Orlandersmith has just started workshopping a new play called “Raw Boys,” which involves six Irish characters, including a Protestant-Catholic couple struggling with the failed ideals of the 1960s and confronting the fear of becoming what they hated in their parents.

“Ain’t no black actors in this,” she says. “I want to write roles that other people can do.”