Alma has just met her dad John, a tall, light-skinned man with gin on his breath and a Gullah accent. He'd taken one look at her, said, "Damn she a big ole ting," and stumbled away. He would've stayed -- if Alma were lighter, her mother says.
Later, Alma's school friend Eugene describes his first encounter with his light-skinned grandfather: "He -- Granddaddy -- leans over and touches my hair, strokes my face murmuring, 'God -- thank God.'" Before Eugene leaves, his grandpa tells him, "Do me one favor, son. If you want to mess with something dark that's fine but don't marry nothing dark."
Local audiences will soon witness Yellowman, playwright Dael Orlandersmith's steely examination of status and skin color. The play, nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 2002, opens this weekend at Southern Rep.
Yellowman's focus hits home with director Curtis-Newton and the production's two-person cast, Karen Kaia-Livers and Lance Nichols. "Both of the actors have expressed to me how the play is personal," says Curtis-Newton, a professor at the prestigious University of Washington School of Drama. She also can draw on a personal connection to the topic, since her own mother's family is very fair and her father's very dark.
The topic is also a familiar one to locals, as Curtis-Newton found when she broached the subject here. "Invariably people say, 'Oh, man, that is so much a part of New Orleans,'" she says.
A quarter-century ago, New Orleans' unique racial history helped spur the formation of the People's Institute for Survival and Beyond, whose employees now span the nation, organizing in communities and leading the Institute's trademark "Undoing Racism" workshops. What people often refer to as "the light-skin/dark-skin thing" is known as "colorism," says Angela Winfrey-Bowman, a trainer with the Institute. She says that colorism occurs everywhere, "But here, we have it down to a science."
A few decades ago, Winfrey-Bowman attended high school with kids from the heavily Creole Seventh Ward. There, she says, a pecking order based on skin color determined who was picked for danceline and who marched in the front of the band.
These pecking orders are not unique to the black community. As Orlandersmith said on Tavis Smiley's National Public Radio show, "Every group of people does this. It's the kind of thing that makes Jewish and Italian girls go out and get nose jobs."
Winfrey-Bowman explains that, in New Orleans, skin color had legal designations dating back to the post-Civil War era, when local free people of color -- "who were of a lighter hue" -- sought to distinguish themselves from newly freed -- and often darker-skinned -- slaves.
At one time, locals with skin darker than a brown paper bag were barred from specific businesses, institutions, social and pleasure clubs, even churches.
Those notions of beauty may even be perpetuated within families, says Winfrey-Bowman, who has five sisters who vary in size and skin tone. People would praise the lighter-skinned sisters or comment on "good hair." The implication is that young women with darker skin and nappier hair are inferior -- a devastating message.
It is more common today for light- and dark-skinned people to mix. But the perceptions still exist, she says. For instance, look at rap videos, which at first show "women of all hues and shades, all shapes and sizes." As rappers rise in status, their videos feature more light-skinned women with long, straight hair.
Winfrey-Bowman also has a young daughter -- "curly-headed just like me," who, soon after starting pre-school, came home wanting straight hair.
"She's 4 and she's questioning her hair," Winfrey-Bowman says.
In Yellowman, the politics of skin color are wrapped around a poetic coming-of-age tale. Eugene and Alma start out as children who lie in the grass singing the Monkees TV-show theme song. Both grow into teenagers who look at their parents and pledge not to be like them.
Pledges like that are difficult to keep, as Yellowman's audiences will discover. Says director Curtis-Newton, "It's about the choices that we make, and how, sometimes, the thing that we've fought the hardest against is something that we ultimately become."