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In Arts & Entertainment Commentary

Actress, poet and playwright Dael Orlandersmith thinks the theater should be a dangerous place. (PHOTO: Milwaukee Rep)

Comparing skin tones at the Rep

Dael Orlandersmith answers her phone like she writes. "Right on time," are the first words out of her mouth when I call her at the precise minute of our appointment.

The actress, poet and playwright employs fewer filters than most people on what she says and how she says it. That makes for fun phone conversations and plays that aren't afraid to tackle provocative subjects.

A case in point is her "Yellowman," a small but gutsy drama about bigotry among African-Americans that was a runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize in 2002. The Milwaukee Rep opens a production of it in the company's Stiemke Theater Sept. 30.

Light-skinned black people were often called "high yellow" a century ago, and "Yellowman" focuses on the social pecking order, based on skin tone, within African-American culture. Orlandersmith framed her exploration of that with a young romantically-involved couple who find themselves in something of a Romeo and Juliet situation.

The man qualifies as high yellow while his girlfriend is a much darker tone of black. She is also a large woman. Their physical differences raise eyebrows and ignite an old prejudice within the South Carolina black community that is their home.

Originally childhood friends, the couple is subjected to growing family pressure when their relationship turns amorous.

"These attitudes are not unique to African-Americans," Orlandersmith said during our conversation. "Every group of people does it. There is prejudice within the group.

"Every group has its frictions. I've heard about eastern European Jews versus northern European Jews."

The difficulty of one generation shedding an older generation's biases is examined in the play. "Self hatred is passed down. The sins of the father and the sins of the mother are passed on," the dramatist said.

Asked if she worried about exposing discrimination within African-American culture to the outside world, Orlandersmith replied, "the theater is supposed to be a dangerous place. I want to write about the darkest side of human nature. I'm interested in how people get treated."

Orlandersmith grew up in Harlem, the daughter of a Bahamian tailor who died when she was 3 and a mother who sometimes awkwardly sought to give her a better life. The little girl was sent to live with an aunt in South Carolina during summers in the '60s, and she became aware of a very fair-skinned black family there.

"I saw what the skin tone thing was all about," she said. "People hated that family, and I saw how that family hated people."

The dramatist, who portrayed the female character in early productions of "Yellowman," is chagrined to admit she played the color card when she was a child. "I was very tall, and a younger cousin made fun of me," she explained. In retaliation, Orlandersmith pointed out that her cousin was darker skinned.

"Yellowman" is being directed by May Adrales, whose stage credits include New York's Public Theater and many of the country's most prestigious regional theaters. Speaking of the show, she said, "I love this play for its poetry and its deep investigation of internal racism and cycles of hate.

"It's the simplest of plays, stripped down to the essential makings of theater – truth, character and storytelling."

Racine native Ryan Quinn will portray the young man in the Rep's production.


thinkabout | Sept. 22, 2011 at 3:35 p.m. (report)

Thanks. This one sounds like a "don't miss."

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