NEWTON -- There are stories of ill-starred lovers to be told in every clash of cultures: Montagues and Capulets, gentiles and Jews, Serbs and Croats. The rift that Dael Orlandersmith tracks in "Yellowman" is the lesser-known one between light-skinned and dark-skinned blacks.
Orlandersmith brings freshness to her telling of the story in both style and substance. Set in South Carolina, the play focuses on Alma, a large, medium-skinned woman (played originally by the playwright) and Eugene, a slightly older, light-skinned man, who's often referred to in the play as "high yeller." The two actors in this production, Adrienne D. Williams and Dorian Christian Baucum, play not only the two characters, but also their family and friends. Rather than relating to each other on a bare stage, they tell the story in twin monologues, a la Brian Friel's "Molly Sweeney" or Conor McPherson's "This Lime Tree Bower." But Orlandersmith, director Lois Roach, and the two actors bring a physicality to this play that those Irish playwrights eschew. They run in place, or act out fistfights and sexual encounters.
The two actors are a pleasure to watch, though Williams starts out a bit histrionically and Baucum ends up that way. Starting out, it's Baucum you can't take your eyes off. He brings a smiling delicacy to Eugene, a striking femininity to his mother, and a desperate anger to his father. The friends are equally well limned. Williams, meanwhile, grows beautifully into Alma as Alma grows into a woman, and the actress moves convincingly in the other direction as Alma's mother disintegrates into stupidity and stupor.
For all its virtues, though, this 2002 Pulitzer Prize finalist isn't as gripping as it should be. The play builds anecdotally, not thematically. We learn early on about the class tensions between light-skinned and dark-skinned blacks, but the tension remains a straight line over the better part of 2 1/2 hours. After a while, that straight line feels like a club beating us over the head with the issue.
The writing isn't as fluid as the acting. Williams sometimes seems to be reaching for a poetry that isn't there, which is surprising given Orlandersmith's background as a poet. She also has a tendency to rely too much on melodrama -- namely dead fetuses, dead puppies, and dead daddies.
There are, though, some fine stories within the story -- Alma coming alive to the sounds of New York City, for example. Or Eugene recalling the joys of childhood. And the New Repertory Theatre production is quite solid, particularly Roach's direction and John Malinowski's lighting.
Despite all that, the virtues of "Yellowman" seem more journalistic than artistic, opening a window onto a world that most theatergoers barely knew existed. That's an accomplishment in itself -- even if Orlandersmith is reaching for, but not quite attaining, something higher.
Ed Siegel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.