Review: Yellowman, Orange Tree Theatre

Review: Yellowman, Orange Tree Theatre

20 years after its premiere Yellowman remains just as poignant and electrifying as ever – and just as heartbreaking.  


I don’t think I have ever seen a show where the audience rises to their feet immediately after the lights go down – until now. 

Even in a city like London, with its completely unique position in the theatrical landscape of the world, it is still quite unusual to see a play that not only doesn’t centre the experiences of white people but doesn’t feature them at all. Yellowman is this play – a beautiful, candid and ultimately heart-breaking study of racism and colourism as seen by the Pulitzer-nominated playwright Dael Orlandersmith.  

Alma and Eugene grow up together in South Carolina. She is curvy and dark-skinned, he is frail and very light-skinned. She grows up in abject poverty with her mother, he lives a fairly comfortable life with his mother, as light-skinned as him, and his very dark-skinned father. She hates her life and is desperate for change, he, for the most part, enjoys the Southern lifestyle. They fall in love that both heals and poisons them both.  

The story unfolds with painful sincerity. In the first half, somewhat introspectively and with digressions galore, but the pace picks up in the second. It is breathtaking and unstoppable, and both actors are excellent storytellers. They embody their characters, all of them: Nadine Higgin owns the stage as Alma in her coming-of-age love story and is painfully miserable and deeply pitiable as Odelia, Alma’s mother. Aaron Anthony makes a convincing Eugene, filled with rising hatred for anyone but Alma; he is also frightening as Robert, Eugene’s dark-skinned father and painfully cruel as his enemy-turned-friend Wyce. Their acting prowess is emphasised additionally by the lack of material stagecrafts – scenography is completely abstract and the sense of place evoked solely by their deep Southern accents and outstanding writing. 

Because truly, Dael Orlandersmith’s writing is uncanny. It is so realistic, it’s excruciating: when she writes about Eugene’s father bringing bottles of bourbon and gin to the table for both mothers to get drunk on, you can almost smell the alcohol. Feel the heat on your skin as Alma talks about “the best summer” of her life. Hear the clicking of her heels as she roams through New York City.  

There are no bad guys and good guys here, and shame is a recurring theme. Alma has been shamed since childhood for her curves and dark skin – Eugene has been shamed for his skin too light and his build too frail. They both cope with it in their own ways, one ultimately more destructive than the other. None of the side characters is truly sympathetic either. They are all products of their own environment, Orlandersmith seems to suggest, and therefore their decisions are never truly “theirs.” Some of them are more hateable than the others, chiefly Wyce and Eugene’s grandfather, others evoke feelings of uncomfortable compassion.  

20 years after its premiere Yellowman remains just as poignant and electrifying as ever – and just as heartbreaking.  

Orange Tree Theatre, until 8 October

Image: Aaron Anthony and Nadine Higgin in Yellowman – Photo by Ali Wright