Review: Yellowman (Orange Tree, online)

Yellowman is written by Dael Orlandersmith and directed by Diane Page. After a live run at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, it has now reappeared on-demand through the OT On Screen programme.

Written in 2002, Orlandersmith’s play is set in South Carolina and concerns Black colourism (that is, light-skinned having preference and privilege over dark-skinned within the community).

There are just two performers in this electric play in which Alma (Nadine Higgin) seeks a way out of poverty appealing to a light-skinned man.

This is about how Black women who are poor and large devalued themselves, seeing their large hips and dark skins as inferior. Women like Alma’s mother, trapped in gin and regret.

Production photo from Yellowman

Eugene (Arran Anthony) is the Yellowman in this play, Alma”s light-skinned boyfriend. As teenagers they know their place and fate, and Eugene absorbs the anger his (dark) dather displays after one two many bourbons.

With only two actors, many characters are depicted by them, including bits of exposition. It gives the play a lot of life as the bare stage opens up all sorts of possibilities.

Higgin and Anthony are both totally immersed in their characters, first as children battling and playing, then realising what “rich” means and what “difference” means.

Alma’s mother dismisses another Black teenager, a boy, as “dark and ugly”; Eugene’s mother, a light-skinned woman, sees things differently, but they live in a nice area without the chains of penury.

Production shot from Yellowman

This is also a play about survival, of family, of tragedy, of who you are and who you become. It is a strong piece which shows that the Orange Tree remains unafraid to tackle difficult scripts and concepts.

Perhaps the second act falls too much defeatism, but we know from the first scene that life in this American state is hard, harsh, and hurtful. Would it be too much to see Alma and Eugene happy in their future?

Yellowman showed at the Orange Tree Theatre from 5 September – 8 October 2022, and on-demand from 11-14 October. There is a supplementary resources pack available here.


Image credit: Ali Wright