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FringeReview UK 2022


Orange Tree Theatre

Genre: American Theater, Drama, Mainstream Theatre, Theatre

Venue: Orange Tree Theatre Richmond


Low Down

Director Diane Page. Designer Neil McKeever, Lighting Designer Rajiv Pattani, Sound Designer Esther Kehinde Ajayi. Casting Director. Sophie Parrott CDG.

Intimacy Director. Rachel Bown-Williams, Dialect Coach Aundrea Fudge

Company Stage Manager Jenny Skivens, Costume Supervisor. Rebecca Carpenter. Deputy Stage Manager. Vicky Zenetzi. ASM Beth Brown, Additional Support Deborah Garvey.

Technical Director Stuart Burgess, Production Manager Lisa Hood, Production LX Chris McDonnell, Scenic Art Anita Gander, Seda Sokmen, Emma Turner.

Gospel vocalist Micha Town sourced by Get Gospel, Vocalists Marcus R Paterson and Dwayne Patterson. ‘Lord I Want to be Free’, written and performed by IONE. 

Production Photographer Ali Wright

Till October 8th


As a teen Alma’s told by her mother all she can look forward to is: ‘Ole big fat funny-lookin’ thing can’t run – ole fat funny-lookin’ thing can’t do nuttin.’ Her mother adds if: ‘only they could be light, light and rich, if they could marry a light-skinned man, they’d be loved’ and not just ‘ridden’. Ridden, impregnated, abandoned.

Dael Orlandersmith’s Pulitzer finalist 2002 Yellowman is one of the most lacerating plays of self-loathing, internalised racism, and violence – including alcoholism – written in recent times. Its focus on Black experience is profoundly layered, but Orlandersmith’s work stands for any minority anywhere, subjected to dominant racial and class oppression.

Colourism is something we’ve glimpsed before at the Orange Tree in 2019 with Athol Fugard’s 1961 Blood Knot, a two-hander where one brother lives with the consequences of having a lighter skin than his sibling in the midst of apartheid. Indeed tonight’s director Diane Page directed Fugard’s later Statements Under Arrest here a year ago.

Yellowman, based mostly in South Carolina from the late 1960s to 70s, explores just such a fissure – around but not between – the growing friendship between Alma and Eugene. With two outstanding performances, this production has nearly everything going for it as each narrates and in less than a beat the other takes over as they circle on designer Neil McKeever’s wood-slatted rectangle. Though  Spartan that’s mostly all this diminutive stage needs, lit often tenebrously by Rajiv Pattani. Increasingly there’s moments of dialogue, ritualised, told by each; towards the climax a line that moves towards dialogue then flies away again. Esther Kehinde Ajayi’s sound includes snatches of gospel and the occasional hum of town and city.

There’s Aaron Anthony’s initially awkward, writhing Eugene and Nadine Higgin’s Alma blazing from her own dinned-in lack of self-worth into young womanhood with a sense of floating Eugene identifies in her again and again, and sexual confidence.

In just two-hours-twenty with interval, Yellowman’s almost epic in its reach, what it does to two characters: inter-racial collisions, divisions of white, yellow, red, brown, all Black. Moving from childhood friendship – say singing the Monkees through their pores in a whoop and flinging-down on the ground – both bring phenomenal energy. It never lets up through teenage awakening and adult love. Singularly it’s not their love that comes under strain, but their racially lacerated selves. And not from outsiders so much as from their families’ divisions.

There’s also a segue into different inflection – so a character adopting or sliding into the North Carolina Black Gullah language exhibits both defiance and slippage, whilst Alma imitating Eugene’s clipped consonants moves towards denial, or assimilation.

Alma’s like her mother, not her lighter-skinned father who’s abandoned them. Lighter-skinned like Eugene. Eugene takes after Thelma his mother and spiteful maternal grandfather. His father, also Eugene, isn’t light-skinned; natural resentment towards the favour his son receives simmers. Marrying Thelma causes a rift between her and her father. But that grandfather thinks he can own the younger Eugene.

Her mother’s profound self-loathing is what Alma’s determined to escape, with a trajectory that takes her on a full scholarship to Hunter college New York.

Paradoxically Eugene, born into relative affluence and opportunity, snarls on his own drift, his father’s disdain, his never-quite-explained lack of direction.

It’s the micro-racism inflected through family and group encounters that makes Orlandersmith’s play even more telling: how Alma’s ignored by Eugene’s relatives but even more how family members ignore each other, which shows without telling us how a dominant race’s oppression provokes divisive, internal hierarches and mutual hatred.

It’s what fuels the climactic encounter too, through alcoholism. Eugene might disdain his father: ‘all day he’d been at it/the bourbon but you’d never know it/that he had bourbon in him unless you knew him well and could smell it.’ But what happens when he starts drinking too?

Alma who suddenly catches sight of herself in a mirror can’t escape either. She turns on a lighter-skinned Hunter student: ‘I burned down her ribbon’ she scathingly summarizes her verbal savagery. ‘I am my mother’s daughter after all.’

Page drives both pace and standstill moments of amplitude, of ripening. But it’s Anthony’s and Higgin’s phenomenal performances that own this stripped-back space, and fill it with complexity, heart and utter conviction.