Feature: Questioning Colourism and Reflecting on Race in Yellowman

Colourism has been widespread in our communities for far too long. Western society’s Eurocentric beauty standards have created a warped hierarchy in which proximity to whiteness is perceived to be the ideal and more attractive. This is not only hugely derogatory to those who are darker skinned, but it also creates a distancing gap within communities of people of colour by creating a division between light-skinned and dark-skinned people, but it is particularly damaging to women. The idea that having lighter skin is superior is inherently problematic and is something that we need to actively challenge and dismantle. This conversation has become more prevalent this week with the news of Prince Harry’s engagement to Meghan Markle, which has prompted an online sea of discussion surrounding palatability, ethnic ambiguity and ‘passing’.

Running in tandem with these discussions is the Young Vic’s production of Dael Orlandersmith’s Pulitzer Prize nominated Yellowman, directed by Nancy Medina – who was awarded the Genesis Director’s Award. Yellowman is a two-hander that follows the relationship of Alma – a plus size, dark-skinned Black woman and Eugene – a slim, light-skinned Black man, from childhood friends to an adolescence of young love yet wanting different things, to an adulthood of plans for marriage but with tragic obstacles. Their lives are filled with challenges surrounding race, class, sizeism and domestic violence.

The play is clever in that it has the actors who play Alma and Eugene also play the family members and friends who play key roles within this story – ranging from their (emotionally and physically) abusive parents to children they befriended at school. There is a highly engaging and very real quality to Olandersmith’s writing that compels an audience to engage with the characters’ world. Nancy, who is currently directing the play at the Young Vic, is avoiding ‘clever director gimmicks’ in this production – “It’s an excellent piece of storytelling – it’s beautifully written… It’s not the type of play (that requires them)”. Her main focus has been directed towards unwrapping the humanity of each of these characters and exploring the impact of generational abuse/trauma and how these behaviours can become cyclic.

“Mental/physical/emotional/substance abuse is passed on from parent to child, at the point we meet Alma and Eugene it is evident that it has not only been destroying the individual but it’s also destroying an entire people.  For me that is something I really felt I needed to bring to the forefront of this production, these characters are part of a bigger community of people still surviving the trauma and legacy of slavery and colonisation.” Yellowman is not subtle in its abilities to address a multitude of social issues against the political climate of the US during the Civil Rights Movement. Whilst this movement had a colossal impact on the lives of people of colour during this time, this play explores the people that these changes didn’t wholly reach. It shows a community living in the Deep South for whom progress is limited and isolation from the rest of the world is very present, even though systematic oppression still pierces through.

It is easy to question the relevance of this play to a modern British audience, but the answer to this is even simpler. We still live in a world in which division, anti-Blackness, slavery and oppression are still rampant. Nancy feels Yellowman is “indicative of our present and global relationship with race and how people of colour living in modern society can still feel lost and isolated and stuck in the past, mentally and emotionally unable to move forward.  I hope British audiences will look deep into their history of colonisation and current society and not look at this play as a US problem only. Colourism is alive and kicking here just as deeply, still reeling from a complicated British past”.

Reflection is a key aspect of this play for the characters, actors and audiences. For Alma, Eugene and their parents, it is near impossible for them to be able to see outside their own perceptions of themselves. A lifetime of self-hatred and sadness is visible and actively living in each of their lives. Nancy has found that this poses a particular challenge to the actors as “every character is given the same amount of emotional, physical and biographical investigation. That can be extremely exhausting for the actor …the play asks us to investigate some very disturbing truths that mirror some of our own personal journeys as people of colour”. And naturally, theatre goers experiencing this play may too be prompted to explore these truths within their own lives and, what these mean within the wider landscape of race and society and our perpetuation of Eurocentric and colouristic ideals. Yellowman “is reflective of a society that does not support the Black community by means of proper education, health care (mental and emotional included) and does not care to investigate how these issues came about.  (There is) a lack of positive and accurate representation of people colour in school curriculums that promote the advances of white/eurocentric cultures and ideas and thus contribute to the continuation of colourism.  This play is a step forward into supporting deep thought and conversation on our complex relationships with race, history and pain” says Nancy.

Dael Orlandersmith’s work has the potential to really open a forum for conversation both within and between communities. It creates a space in which we can acknowledge and dissect the structures that uphold, replicate and spread oppression that is based on proximity to whiteness. It exposes aspects of colourism, sizeism, abuse and trauma, in an intimate yet wholly animate place. This is a story that reflects to us the world we are still living in now but gives us the necessary nudge to think about it differently and to want to change something. To want more for ourselves and others, just as Alma does.

Yellowman is playing at the Young Vic’s Claire theatre until December 2nd 2017. For more information and to book tickets, visit https://www.youngvic.org/whats-on/yellowman

Charlotte Maxwell

Charlotte Maxwell

Charlotte is the Editor of A Younger Theatre and regularly reviews theatre for The Stage and on her website, afronalysis.com. Outside of reviewing, Charlotte is a writer, actor and director. She has had the pleasure of working with the Royal Exchange, Contact, Graeae, HOME, National Youth Theatre, Manchester Literature Festival and Parklife. With a background in education and healthcare, she has a terrible curiosity about human behaviour and an interest in using the arts to support learning. Charlotte read Speech and Language Sciences at Newcastle University and will be embarking on an MEd in Psychology of Education at the University of Manchester in 2018.