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STAGE REVIEW

They form a real power couple

Actors make ‘Yellowman’ even more of a revelation

Rachel Christopher and Joe Wilson Jr. star in Dael Orlandersmith’s “Yellowman.’’ Rachel Christopher and Joe Wilson Jr. star in Dael Orlandersmith’s “Yellowman.’’ (Mark Turek)
By Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / March 12, 2011

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PROVIDENCE — No one who has seen the protean transformations of Joe Wilson Jr. at Trinity Repertory Company over the years will be surprised by the breadth and depth of his performance in “Yellowman,’’ Dael Orlandersmith’s searing exploration of tensions between dark-skinned and light-skinned African-Americans.

The true revelation in “Yellowman’’ is Wilson’s costar, newcomer Rachel Christopher, whose debut on the Trinity Rep stage is a memorable one.

Every time we enter a theater, it is with the hope of a fresh and exciting discovery. Christopher, a third-year student in the Brown University-Trinity Rep MFA acting program, amply rewards that hope with a performance of bold assurance, emotional variety, and psychological insight. She does more than hold her own with Wilson, who usually walks off with any play he appears in. The exhilarating result is a double display of virtuosity.

“Yellowman’’ takes a dubious turn toward lurid sensationalism at the end, and director Laurie Carlos sometimes allows design elements — too many voice-overs, too many repetitive rear-stage projections — to clutter up the play. Nevertheless, this production is a must-see for anyone interested in the complex permutations of racial identity.

In an elliptical playbill note, Carlos alludes to the memory-opening power of a “jazz aesthetic,’’ and under her guidance the 100-minute, intermissionless “Yellowman’’ does indeed unfold like a series of free-flowing saxophone solos, alternately passionate, raucous, and mournful.

Eugene (Wilson) and Alma (Christopher), speaking in lyrical monologues that occasionally overlap, and punctuating their words with stylized, slow-motion movements, recall their youth together in the small rural community of Russellville, S.C., in the early 1960s. They describe, and reenact, the steady kindling of their love for each other as they grew older.

That love is rife with complications stemming from their different skin tones. Eugene is light-skinned, or “high yella’’; Alma is dark-skinned with, in her words, “nappy hair.’’

For this young couple, the pernicious reality of prejudice is felt not just from the white community, but from within the black community as well. They face a constant, double-edged battle for acceptance amid hostility from their families and friends.

Eugene’s father, a dark-skinned man who is consumed by bitterness, makes no secret of the fact that he despises his son for the social advantages he believes the boy’s light skin confers. Yet when Eugene strikes up a friendship with a dark-skinned schoolmate over their shared fondness for Spider-Man comic books, the other boy’s mother chases Eugene away from their house, saying: “Me and my boy is pure blood black. Pure black, ya hear?’’ Later, as Eugene begins to navigate the sexual terrain of adolescence, one of his friends is incredulous that he has no interest in light-skinned girls. Eugene prefers Alma.

Meanwhile, Alma’s alcoholic mother, Odelia, routinely belittles her as an “ole big fat funny-lookin’ thing,’’ and goes so far as to force-feed the girl a vile-tasting root every night for a week because she believes it will lighten her daughter’s skin.

For all of Alma’s unmistakable brains and individuality and ambition (“I have to be somebody,’’ she tells Eugene), she still struggles to avoid being capsized by self-loathing. At one point, raw and desperate, she gives voice to her fear that her father left their family because of her dark skin. “I don’t wanna be dark and big,’’ she cries. “I wanna be pretty. God, make me light and pretty!’’

“Yellowman’’ traces the star-crossed romance between the pair as she heads off to college in New York City while he stays behind in South Carolina. Bit by suspenseful bit, the play builds to a climactic, if a bit contrived, confrontation.

Wilson and Christopher vividly conjure a host of secondary characters, switching back and forth from different voices and attitudes, while evoking a wider world of pervasive bigotry that, perhaps inevitably, leaks into the relationship between Alma and Eugene. “I am not rich or light,’’ she snaps at him during an argument, underscoring the nexus between color and class — and the fact that they, too, are susceptible to the use of color as a wedge between them.

In his portrayal of the tormented Eugene, Wilson digs deep. He is understated at times, explosive at others; he brings an incantatory power to the play’s big scenes. Even during the smaller, carefree moments, his Eugene wears an expression of perpetual anxiety. He always seems to be standing on shaky ground, looking into an uncertain future.

And Rachel Christopher? Well, she is slated to graduate in May. Theater companies in Boston — and beyond — take note.

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.

YELLOWMAN

Play by: Dael Orlandersmith

Directed by Laurie Carlos

Sets and projection, Seitu Jones. Lights, Michael Wangen. Costumes, William Lane. Sound, Peter Sasha Hurowitz.

At: Trinity Repertory Company, Dowling Theater, Providence.

Through April 3. Tickets $21-$66, 401-351-4242,

www.trinityrep.org.