griots of America

I have been reading the works of Ms. Dael Orlandersmith, an award-winning playwright who grew up in Harlem. As mentioned in a previous post from Dreamer’s Paradise, I have read Orlandersmith’s Yellowman (2002), which was nominated for a 2002 Pulitzer Prize in Drama. Orlandersmith was nominated the same year that Suzan-Lori Parks won a Pulitzer Prize for Topdog/Underdog (2001) and became the first African-American woman to receive a Pulitzer Prize in Drama. Maybe I’m not in the know when it comes to theater productions, but I don’t recall there being a lot of buzz for Yellowman, which goes to show you that just because you never heard of someone or something doesn’t mean it isn’t good. Yellowman takes place in South Carolina and follows the budding romance between dark-skinned, big-boned, and ambitious Alma and fair-skinned, sensitive, and somewhat of a slacker Eugene. In this play, Orlandersmith reveals the ugliness of colorism and classism within the African-American community. Eugene has a contentious relationship with his dark-skinned father, Robert Gaines, who despises and envies his light-hued son: You wanna fight me high yella, huh? You wanna fight? I think your best bet high yella is to get outta my face before I hurt you/ cause I will knock your high yella/ red ass down! (Orlandersmith 10). There are other parts in the play where the language is poetic and sensual. I could feel the sun beating on my skin and the speckles of red dust falling on my bare feet. I could feel the heat of Alma’s and Euguene’s first sexual encounter. When Alma attends college, I could hear the music blaring from the windows and smell the exotic foods of New York City. Although the ending is tragic and haunting, Yellowman is a must-read. I would have loved to see the original production of Orlandersmith’s play, which starred Dael Orlandersmith and Howard W. Overshown, but I will settle with any production that is well-directed. It’s funny that I had never heard of Orlandersmith before reading Yellowman—I think she is one of those talented artists that few people know, which is crazy considering that she is a Pulitzer Prize nominee who received an Obie Award in 1996 for Beauty’s Daughter. I often wonder why some artists are talented and gifted; yet, no one has heard of them. As far as Black female playwrights go, the ones I know are Lorraine Hansberry, who penned Raisin in the Sun (1959), and Suzan-Lori Parks, and that is simply sad because I know there are plenty of Black female playwrights that are doing their thing. For example, there is Latonia Valincia, a playwright who lives in Baltimore, who writes about the experiences of Black women. Last year, she debuted her play, Bootprints, at the University of Baltimore’s Emerging Voices showcase (click here to view UB’s lineup for 2010). Then, there is Sherna Ann Johnson, another playwright from Baltimore, who premiered her first play, “The XX Chromosome Genome Project” at The Strand Theater (click here, to read my play review). I love to read Black female playwrights because they tell stories that include me and my heritage. They are our griots.  Listen. Absorb. Reflect. Cherish. Share. 


Filed under Writing

2 responses to “griots of America

  1. Derrick

    Now I have to read Yellowman. I think colorism is an important thing we have to address as people of color whether African American, Hispanic, or Indian. I find it interesting that the author used the word “fair” to describe Eugene though fair is a word that describes color it also has some social baggage if we say that the lighter person has fair skin-subliminally we’re saying that the lighter skinned person is more beautiful, more pure and to be desired above the dark skinned person. Europeans began calling Africans “black” or “dark” in the middle ages did not have a positive connotation meaning that one was evil, condemmed or did not have a soul. I know this post is about literature but I think literature can become the catalyst for change. Though much research has been done on colorism I think that there is still much more to do. I recommend adding Dr. Frances Cress Welsing’s theories on color confrontation (to the discussion on colorism) as laid out in her book the Isis Papers…she has several videos on youtube.

  2. Another great (non-wellknown) Black female playwright is Anastacia Tolbert. Check her out at !

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