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Exploring the shades of racism

Special to The Times

A finalist for the 2002 Pulitzer in drama, Dael Orlandersmith’s “Yellowman,” now at the Fountain Theatre, is a sweepingly poetical yet down-to-earth drama about the ravages of racial elitism and generational abuse in the Gullah-Geechee culture of South Carolina’s Sea Islands.

The play commences in the late 1960s, when the burgeoning black pride movement is still just distant thunder to the Gullahs, relegated by race to the lowliest occupations of their isolated rural communities. Yet Orlandersmith is not chiefly concerned with the prejudice that the Gullahs face from the white status quo. She’s more intent on examining the fascinating microcosm of black island life, especially those inequalities inherent in the blacks’ own social hierarchy -- a class system based primarily on skin color. In Gullah culture, light-skinned individuals are part of the elite, enjoying more prestige and job opportunities than those with heavily African features, who are automatically considered low class and low bred.

For the light-complexioned and affluent young Eugene (Chris Butler), it’s an advantage with a hidden downside. Rejected by whites and resented by many blacks, Eugene is caught in the middle of forces he cannot control. Most damaging, Eugene faces constant ridicule and spite from his dark-skinned father, a hard-drinking, self-made man who considers Eugene weak and spoiled.

Eugene’s best friend and soon-to-be lover is the vibrant, darker-skinned Alma (Deidrie N. Henry), a fatherless girl constantly abused by her drunken, impoverished mother, who detests Alma’s statuesque blackness. Star-crossed, Alma and Eugene strive to escape their legacy of self-loathing, but while Alma has the tenacity to make it on the outside, Eugene is bound for alcohol-fueled catastrophe.

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There’s not a weak link in this formidable production. Director Shirley Jo Finney underscores Orlandersmith’s lyricism with a humor and emotional reserve that makes the final cataclysm all the more wrenching. Among the assured production elements, Kathi O’Donohue’s subtle lighting design is particularly noteworthy. In their multiple roles, Butler and Henry are simply virtuosic. Perfectly focused and poignant, their performances are indelible.

*

‘Yellowman’

Where: Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Hollywood

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When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays

Ends: March 26

Price: $25

Contact: (323) 663-1525

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Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes


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