Karamu's latest doesn't quite jell

YELLOWMAN Karamu House 2355 E. 89th St. 216.795.7077 Tickets: $20-$25

Splayed and entangled like figures in a living Rodin on Karamu's arena stage, Kyle Primous and Kristi Little embody a doomed couple who make Porgy and Bess look like Hansel and Gretel. Alas, Karamu's fevered production of Yellowman adds up to an evening of red-hot almosts.

This seems appropriate for a sweaty series of connecting monologues that almost won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize. Trimmed by 40 minutes, it could make a one-act worthy to be presented with Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones.

Poet-turned-playwright Dael Orlander-smith wrote this two-character play as an atomizer to spray her own acting pheromones. She hit upon a theme befitting William Faulkner, Toni Morrison and Oprah: the animosity between dark- and light-skinned blacks, the latter disparagingly referred to as "high yellows."

The work strives for the intensity of Greek theater as it tells of Alma and Eugene, childhood friends and subsequent lovers, raised in South Carolina's Gullah culture. Their doom seems as predestined as in a Shakespearean tragedy.

Orlandersmith's play is written with almost schizophrenic contradictions. At times, she seeks a high-flown poetic and universal ambiance, with her male protagonist uttering pronouncements like "There's a fluidity to the heat in South Carolina." Two minutes later, she'll reach across the cultural divide and show her lovers as children singing and dancing to The Monkees theme song.

There's an uncomfortable rift between social realism and expressionistic fatalism. Fortunately, much of this is relieved in the Karamu production by the physical fluidity of its actors. They create an array of characters whose black self-hatred is palpable in their longing to be light-skinned.

Primous, an accomplished dancer, brings the effortless grace of a Fred Astaire. There's more poetry in his childhood romps imitating Batman and expressing first love than in five pages of Orlandersmith's overheated dialogue. Throughout, Primous calls up images of Ray Bolger's Scarecrow and a Mandingo warrior, and engages in a fight to the death with his father that's redolent of an Alvin Ailey piece.

It's a blow to the play's verisimilitude that Little looks 20 years younger than her co-star. But this is more than compensated for in Little's ability to play two generations of oppressed black women ashamed of their massive size and dark skin. She is particularly adept at showing us the blossoming of Alma, who escapes to New York and shares sexual bliss with light-skinned Eugene.

Until now, director Fred Sternfeld has specialized in restaging Broadway warhorses and stirring the chicken fat in oy-vey plays. Here, he wisely stands out of the way and allows his impassioned actors to hurl their own Roman candles. Although it's an evening of heightened passions and visual majesty, we leave the theater enervated and unfulfilled — and not quite knowing why.

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