A play about black-against-black discrimination may seem an unusual choice for an Alaska town with a black population of less than 1 percent. However, cast member Jordan Barbour points out that Juneau's whiteness is a compelling reason to stage "Yellowman" here.
"This show is important for Juneau," Barbour said, "because it's so white here, we don't think of race as a big issue. But it is, for Tlingits and Filipinos too.
"Yellowman," Perseverance Theatre's latest production, tells the story of Alma and Eugene, childhood companions who fall in love despite a complexity of prejudice within their community. Ericka Lee plays Alma, a big-boned, dark-skinned black woman - probably a portrait of the playwright, Dael Orlandersmith - as well as her father and her mother. Alma's mother, Odelia, an uneducated field laborer, believes her blackness is ugly, and this belief contaminates Alma too.
The only other actor is Barbour, who also plays multiple characters including Alma's lighter-skinned lover, Eugene, and his parents. Eugene's bitter, dark-skinned father cannot forgive the son's lighter color, and their relationship rots like spoiled fruit.
Barbour explained that the play confronts the issue of racism within - rather than directed toward - the black community.
"Often plays or movies about race deal with white-versus -black. What's different in this production is that the issue is internal bigotry. We're exploring the fact of racism within the black community."
The term "yellow" or "high yellow", from which the play takes its title, comes from black dialect and refers to someone who is just the wrong shade of black: black enough to look black to whites but maybe not black enough to be a "real" black.
Lee provided a vivid real-life example of how subtle differences in skin tone can affect social status with a story about the "paper bag test." In her mother's day at Howard University, she explained, blacks whose skin was lighter than the color of a brown paper bag were permitted to join to an exclusive sorority. This was the only admission criterion. Though Ericka's mom passed easily, being a very light-skinned black woman, she sought to find balance by creating a different sorority, one that required being darker than the paper bag.
"People think if you're whiter, you're better," Lee said. "Right from the beginning, darker blacks worked in the field and lighter blacks served in the houses. Check out www.lynch.com. This is not just an African-American cultural problem and we can't solve this problem by being in denial that it exists."
Lee, who like her mother is a Howard graduate, exudes her compelling interest in the multitude of issues within racism that "Yellowman" explores.
"Racism is still prevalent," she said, "and it started with the blight of slavery. Maybe it's less overt now. But look around at television and magazines. Not many dark blacks, right? Lighter-skinned blacks will advance in their careers, or get better paid."
Director Flordelino Lagundino, a Filipino-American, comes to the issues of racism from a slightly different angle.
"The problem (of racism) doesn't only come from the white communities (making judgments about color). My mother told me not to go outside in the sun; not to get too brown. She also told me it didn't matter who I married, as long as it wasn't a white girl."
Though the two actors and the director did not reveal how the issues of internal bigotry play out for Alma and Eugene in "Yellowman," they did offer some ideas about what an audience may carry away from attending a performance.
"The play doesn't offer any easy solutions, but it opens the conversation," Lee said.
Barbour expressed a similar view. "The show is not didactic, it's just trying to get the audience to acknowledge this reality (of racism)."
"That is theater's job, to provoke thinking," Lagundino added.
"Yellowman" performances are scheduled for Wednesdays through Sundays through June 8 at Perseverance Theatre in Douglas.
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