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Theater Wed Oct 05 2011
Photo: Anthony Robert La Penna
Racism is certainly a subject that is pervasive in American society; however, the subject takes on an entirely different dynamic when it occurs within an ethnic group. Here, J. Israel Greene, Artistic Director for Greenetree Productions, discusses Yellowman, Dael Orlandersmith's Pulitzer Prize-nominated play about race and skin color within the African-American community and their effect on society at large.
Yellowman approaches race/racism from an intraracial angle; do you feel this is an area that isn't discussed enough?
I always try to describe it as "having secrets within the family"--and I consider the black community a family within itself. And I think it's kind of the way we treated this--as a "secret." It's a secret we've kept covered up and we felt it was time to put this out there for the world to see.
So, you wanted to tell the story of racism--from a different side of things.
Yes. You usually think about race only in "black and white" terms but it's far greater than that.
Why was Yellowman chosen to kick off the 2011-2012 season?
I wanted to do a show that was passionate, one that I was passionate about and that was within in our mission. This kind of fit right in with that; it is a powerful show and by opening with a powerful show, it lets the Chicago community know that we're going to be a force to be reckoned with and that we're not afraid to take risks and reach out there and extend ourselves. That's one of the reasons I wanted to open with a 'bang'.
Regarding race and skin color, the social issue of classism immediately comes to mind--to what degree does it explore this and any other "isms?"
The whole piece of this is if you're lighter skinned, you're "better" or of a higher class and if you're dark-complected, you automatically have the world against you--even within your own race--with people who should be extending a hand to you instead of being against you. It speaks to that, and also to body types, to what society deems as beautiful, meaning, a person who is thinner is more beautiful than one who is heavier. It's so degrading and it's so in your face it's amazing. And your heart just goes out to these characters.
You serve as the Artistic Director for Greenetree Productions, and you're also the male lead in Yellowman; was there anything in the story you felt a specific connection to?
I was drawn to it because I'm light-complected, because of the story itself, and because I'm from the South. I grew up in Kentucky, so I love the southern stories--the old traditions that are passed on from generation to generation--especially in the South.
Let's talk a bit about the character Alma, who is both heavy and dark-skinned, which is typically deemed, by society at large, a double negative for black women--was that conscious to make her that way?
That was most important to me in casting; luckily, Jonathan Wilson, the director of the show, gave me the freedom to cast who I thought would be a good fit for this role. We had no problem finding a great actress that could fit the dynamics of the stereotypes of the character. Deanna [Reed] who plays Alma is very beautiful; she is portrayed as this unattractive woman because of her complexion, size and other physical attributes she has. I also wanted people to be able to see the dynamics of the spectrum of the rainbow--light vs. dark, and how much that contrast does matter on stage.
What do you want the audience to take away from this story? Any specific message?
There are so many things, but the biggest is that we are one race--the human race. Make a judgment about people for yourself--and as much as a cliché as it is--do not judge them by the color of their skin but by truly who they are.
Chicago has long been labeled as one of, if not the most, segregated cities on earth--what do you think a story like this means to the city's black community--and/or the city as a whole?
I did the show about 10 yrs ago in Kentucky and people came out in droves--that's how I knew it was a message that needed to be said. And it's really important this message gets out in Chicago--it's important that it's heard--even if it steps on toes. But that's the beauty about theater--it should be able to convey what people are afraid to say.
Catch the extended run of Yellowman through October 16, at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont at 8pm Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; 2pm on Sundays. Scheduling note: No scheduled performance Saturday, Oct. 15. Tickets are $25 and are on sale online, at the box office or by phone, 773-327-5252.