Hampstead Theatre, London NW3
Opened 26 May, 2004

The good news is that the Hampstead Theatre's new main-house presentation is exactly the sort of wonderful work to silence the dire mutterings about a major off-West End venue in crisis. The bad news is that I'm not sure its artistic excellence will translate into commercial success.

Dael Orlandersmith's Yellowman, like her solo piece The Gimmick which I admired on the Edinburgh Fringe in 2000, is a tale of a girl and her male best friend growing up. This time Alma and Eugene are children in South Carolina, in an unspecified but recent past. They hit adolescence, fall inevitably in love, and... But the events are empty without the social context. For although both characters are black, Alma is dark-skinned, whereas Eugene is the fair-skinned son of a darker father.

This portrayal of black-on-black racism is compelling and horrifying to the very end. All kinds of class factors are involved as well: Eugene lives in a better-off district within the city limits, his father has trained his voice away from the "Geechie" accent that makes Alma cringe when she hears her mother. But again and again it comes down to the difference between feeling oneself a "fat black ugly thing", with the emphasis on "black", and being thought to have it easy because of being "high yella".

The story is told in two intercutting monologues; on the two or three brief occasions when they actually exchange remarks directly, director Indhu Rubasingham does not even have Alma and Eugene face one another. The script feels "written" rather than "spoken", as it were, but it's written with the fluid grace that characterises much of the finest black American writing. Orlandersmith's poetry comes not from exotic vocabulary or structure,  but from the ordinary perfection of each word and phrase. Cecilia Noble and Kevin Harvey give faultless, electrifying performances.

Whence my reservations, then? Simply that (and this is not intended as indictment, just observation) Hampstead doesn't generally have a very diverse clientele in terms of heritage. The show (a co-production with Liverpool Everyman, where it opened last month) was rapturously received on press night, but the house was some way from full and the proportion of black theatregoers there was, I'd estimate, barely five per cent. The theatre needs either to achieve major audience crossover, or to bring in its base  constituency in greater numbers than seemed likely on Wednesday night. But I fervently hope my pessimism is misplaced; regardless of one's origins, this terrific show deserves to be seen.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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