Dael Orlandersmith is an American phenomenon who is not yet well known on this side of the Atlantic. She is, like August Wilson, a chronicler of her people and a storyteller, but also far more than that, she is a wonderful performance poet of an actress.
Her earlier play, The Gimmick, which she performed herself in Edinburgh four years ago, remains vividly in the mind even today. It was an unsentimental portrait of black youth on the edge in urban America.
Her new play, Yellowman, was a great success off-Broadway in 2002, receiving nominations for both a Drama Desk Award and the Pulitzer Prize. It played at the Manhattan Theater Club, a venue that is fast colonising London. (It also introduced Fuddy Meers, which opened at the Arts Theatre the day before Yellowman's Hampstead debut.)
The play follows the childhood and youth of Alma, who is Black and from the wrong side of the tracks and "Yellow" Gene, a paler-skinned man who faces the kind of racism that dare not speak its name.
The story follows them from their pre-teen meeting right through to Gene's final tragic fall from grace. It looks at life amongst the dirt-poor in South Carolina in the 1970s, where prejudice is based on skin colour. It contrasts the upper class, town-dwelling Yellowmen with their downtrodden Black neighbours.
The two groups hardly meet and hate each other just as much as different religions in Northern Ireland or Blacks and Whites in the Deep South in earlier times.
This makes life difficult for the two youngsters who almost immediately fall in love. Gene is the product of a "mixed" marriage with a highly educated, deep-voiced Black father who has dragged himself to success but at the price of losing his identity; and a mother who has given up everything for love. He is constantly under peer pressure to find himself a thin and beautiful, almost-white girlfriend and to ditch Alma.
She fares no better, as her gin-sodden mother objects not only to her boy friend but also to the educational and social aspirations that eventually lead her to glamorous New York City and a better life. This, though, also begins to drive a wedge between Alma and Gene.
The play eventually builds to a devastating but perhaps inevitable ending as drink takes over and 20 years of rivalry between Gene and his father fatally boils over.
Cecilia Noble has some very big shoes to step into as she takes on a part written for and created by the playwright. She may lack some of Dael Orlandersmith's stage presence but gives a good performance.
Under the direction of Indhu Rubasingham on Liz Ascroft's dusty front yard set, Miss Noble and Kevin Harvey demonstrate that they are both very talented character actors. Not only do they need to deliver the stories of Alma and Gene in monologues, as the pair almost never speak to each other, they also imitate all of the richly varied people with whom they interact, and the actors do this with relish.
Yellowman is a moving and often witty depiction of the kind of American life that the British rarely if ever find out about. Intra-racial rivalries are usually subsumed by more recognisable racism.
It would be wonderful if this production led to a far wider exposure for Dael Orlandersmith's work in United Kingdom. She has a unique voice and addresses hard issues in a way that hits targets subtly but effectively.
This review originally appeared on Theatreworld in a slightly different version
Reviewer: Philip Fisher