Yellowman, Everyman Theatre, Liverpool

The light and shade of loving
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The Independent Culture

Don't be put off by the fact that there are only two named roles in the cast of Dael Orlandersmith's Yellowman. In this powerfully engaging story of two Afro-Americans - dark-skinned Alma and her longtime sweetheart, the lighter-skinned "yella" Eugene - a whole collection of characters is brought to life in a penetrating exploration of the damage created by the weight of racial prejudice and dysfunctional family relationships.

Don't be put off by the fact that there are only two named roles in the cast of Dael Orlandersmith's Yellowman. In this powerfully engaging story of two Afro-Americans - dark-skinned Alma and her longtime sweetheart, the lighter-skinned "yella" Eugene - a whole collection of characters is brought to life in a penetrating exploration of the damage created by the weight of racial prejudice and dysfunctional family relationships.

From carefree childhood, through awkward adolescence to the stage where being grown up merely proves that there's still a long way to grow, two lives are played out in a sharply honed series of interior monologues, character sketches and many-sided dialogues.

In the UK premiere of Yellowman, Cecilia Noble and Kevin Harvey, on stage for an hour and three quarters, deliver two blistering performances. Noble irradiates the play's many issues with eloquence and a glowing grace, getting right under the skin of Alma, and producing several clever cameos, the best of which is that of her mother, Odelia. The older woman's dark skin colour relegated her to work in the fields, and her resentment at her daughter's failure to be brighter, lighter and therefore "better", smoulders destructively.

Harvey gives the affable Eugene an appropriately urbane air, a confidence borne of his enviable skin colour, despite the inevitable burden of having a dark-skinned father. Lacking Alma's vision of a better life, he can't throw off the shackles of the deep-rooted prejudice within his family. From the superficial security of his more comfortable background, he - unlike Alma - never needed to create a dream, an ambition to succeed, a mechanism to survive.

When an unexpected legacy opens old family wounds, Eugene comes quickly and hot-bloodedly to boiling point and the play's tragic denouement is a shock, delivered to maximum emotional effect by Harvey. While Eugene's grandfather has the last word from the grave, shame, anger, fear and self-hatred simmer and erupt with a cruel intensity.

Liquor, rather than love, flows abundantly in both families. When Alma finally escapes the claustrophobic confines of their South Carolina hometown, leaving behind her endless chores and a mother disapp-ointed in her "too big, too dark, too ugly" daughter, she spins excitedly into New York life. Noble sweeps us dizzily along with her.

Time flies past, the speeches sing and the rich variety of life in the hot South is colourfully and compellingly projected through skilful use of tiny mannerisms, body language, exaggerated accents, and subtle variations of rhythm, pitch and dynamics. With effectively minimal direction from Indhu Rubasingham, the words and worlds of Alma and Eugene are conjured with astonishing vividness. Scenarios such as the symbolic slitting of a black puppy's throat, or the Larkin-esque awfulness of their parents behaviour at the graduation dinner, are sensitively and even humorously drawn.

Meanwhile the bigger picture - especially the isolated nature of human relationships - is deftly filled in. Orlandersmith, who received a Pulitzer prize nomination for Yellowman, avoids any awkward sentiment, or grand statements of love between Alma and Eugene. She also goes a lot further than skin-deep in raising challenging and disquieting issues to which there are no easy answers, no quickfix solutions.

Only the shining, unconditional love between Alma and Eugene, caught in a perpetual circle of internal racism and alcohol-abuse, gives the story a fragile thread of optimism. But even that doesn't last the course, snapping under the weight of fears and misconceptions that past generations can't or won't let go of.

To 8 May (0151-709 4776). Then Hampstead Theatre, London NW3 (020-7722 9301), 25 May to 19 June

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