Award-winning playwright tackles black self-hatred in Guthrie show

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“Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” was a popular 1960s song by James Brown. Of course, it was also in the peak of the Black Power movement: the brief historical period when African Americans actually felt good about themselves for a change, or so it seemed. In fact, the darker or blacker in skin tone you were, the prouder you felt. The woollier and bigger your afro was, the more you flaunted it; the more you talked about being proud of being black, the more privileged you felt.

What could be more beautiful than being black, especially when you are? But what’s more beautiful, perhaps, is whatever color God endowed you with, it is one that should be held in high regard without putting down someone else. That’s one of the issues that the play Yellowman tackles head on: the prejudices that darker skinned blacks can sometimes hold against other lighter skinned black folks.

With multiple awards to her credit, playwright Dael Orlandersmith’s Yellowman was a finalist for the prestigious Pulitzer Prize award. MSR recently spoke with Orlandersmith on the play, the deep self-hatreds that still fester within the black community, and more.

Dael, could you please tell our readers how you feel about Yellowman becoming a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize award at this stage of your career?
I’m humbled by it, but I’m not that writer yet. I didn’t deserve it, but it went to where it was suppose to go to… I’m still learning as a writer — still on-the-job training for me. But was I humbled by it? Yeah. I still after four years don’t quite believe it.

Could you tell our readers a little bit about the play?
I wanted to look at the ramifications of race on not just simply from slave master [point of view]… I wanted to look at how everybody takes on the very bias that’s been done onto them and perpetrates, and in that way it’s not to let black people off the hook, or white people off the hook. You know, certainly the internal tremors [are] a result of what has been done to us. But simultaneously, when we [blacks] take it on and we do it — we’re taking on the very bias that’s been done onto us and perpetrating it.

It’s kind of like [how] Jimi Hendrix didn’t become a “brother” until after he died. Or like I heard years ago, I don’t know how true this is…that The Bluest Eye, in Atlanta, was yanked from bookstores mysteriously when it first came out because it wasn’t a, quote unquote, “good representation of black people.” I don’t know how true that is, but the person that told me that was very close to Toni Morrison.

And again, to say that — to do that again takes it on the very bias that has been done to us. If you don’t want to read the book, don’t read the book.

And like any group of people, we’re multi-faceted. We’re multi-ethnic. We’re multi-layered. It’s not just simply the church choir and the `hood experience. Like any group of people, we’re a melting pot within a melting pot. So, that’s one of the reasons why I wrote that.

And I also wanted to look at the sins of the father and the sins of the mother, and how the very things we don’t like about our parents we can become. [It’s] like Kahlil Gibran [the Lebanese-American writer] says, “Your children are not of you, they pass through you.”

Who or what inspires your work, if any?
There’s a lot of things and a lot of people. Certainly Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Picasso…

Are you currently working on anything now, If so, what and when can audiences expect to see it out?
I don’t know when they can expect to see it [laughing]. But there’s two things I’m working on out here [in Los Angeles]. I don’t live here. I live in New York. I just did a draft of a play called Bones for the Mark Taper [Forum]. We’ll see what happens with that.

But next year at Longworth [Theater], I’m working with a guy called David Kale, and we’re doing some pieces [that are] untitled. It’s not even a play. He’s a white gay man — I’m [a] black straight woman, and we’re kind of talking about stuff, and we’re getting in the room and jammin’, and it’s fun.

Yellowman (a Mixed Blood Theater production) opened at the new Guthrie Theater on Friday, September 28 in downtown Minneapolis and will run until October 29. For more information, call 612-377-2224.

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