Watching the play Yellowman at the Market Theatre earlier this year, I was reminded of Njabulo Ndebele's novella Fools (1983). As I sat totally absorbed by the beautiful, painful, sad yet familiar story of blackness unfolding on stage, I kept remembering a scene in Ndebele’s novella, when the character Zani, tells teacher Zamani “The sound of victims laughing at victims. Feeding on their victimness until it becomes an obscene virtue. … And when victims spit upon victims, should they not be called fools?”
Like Fools, Yellowman explores certain core truths about the historical experience of blackness, as indelibly scarred by the dark stains of various structures of white supremacist bigotry - slavery, colonialism, apartheid - all of which were anchored on the skin-thin lie of the inferiority of the darker races. And while these systems of racial oppression may be formally over (as we are urged, begged, cajoled and reprimanded to embrace an attractive collective amnesia coated with such deliciously pleasant concepts as ‘multi-culturalism’, ‘non-racialism’, ‘cosmopolitanism’ and many more), I am always amazed at the naivety and duplicity behind this call to mass amnesia: Naivety because it expects to sweep away centuries of institutionalized violation with a mere flick of new flags and duplicity because it turns a blind eye to the continued privileging of certain cultural, symbolic, epistemological and economic practices that remain normative, despite the enthusiastic promotion of ‘multi’s’ and ‘non’s’. But I digress.
One cliché truism which surely bears repeating is the fact that the worst damage of all forms of black subjugation was not so much the economic, material and physical abuse and exploitation that they involved, but the irreparable damage they did to the black psyche. Indeed, the evil genius of these systems of black oppression lay in the way they planted an ever-morphing seed of self-doubt and self-hate in the psyche of an entire people. It is in this sense that Yellowman and Fools would seem to be in conversation with each other, despite the widely different contextual landscapes. For, in both texts, we witness what happens when the rage, humiliation and brutalization brims over, and ricochets into a pathological projectile, aimed at fellow victims.
Yellowman explores love, class tensions, and the structural violence of poverty, as a powerful vicious cycle. But at the core of the play is the an exploration of black self-hatred, and the internalization of racism, which results in mutual denigration amongst black people; and a certain prizing of whiteness, as black people desperately grope for an unattainable affirmation founded on proximity to whiteness, in the broadest sense of the term.
It is in this sense that the play, though set in the American South, has a powerful relevance not just for South Africans, but for black people all over the world. For, in its exploration of internalized self-hatred, and the various forms of violence that ensue from a toxic blend of generations of racism, poverty, broken black masculinities, anxieties about upward mobility, and the ensuing disintegration on the family institution; the play strikes a note that resonates with many black people's lives, and their everyday struggles for dignity and acceptance – both self-acceptance and social recognition. And while the play may be set in a space remote to many, both physically and temporally, it is also the case that most of us do not have to dig too deep into the mists of our past generations to recognize ourselves, our struggles, our pains or the struggles and pains of people we know, in the experiences of ‘Gene and Alma and their families.
In many ways, though, the play not only warns against the dangers of internalized self-hatred, but it also celebrates the possibilities of love and a sense of community as sites of healing for historically wounded blackness. Yet - and this is where the play's politics become dangerously fatalistic – after tantalizing its audiences with the possibility of a life-affirming love enabling ‘Gene and Alma to transcend the toxic culture of denigration and victims turning against victims, the narrative destroys this possibility in the end, by allowing Gene to succumb to his father's projected self-hatred. Worse still, in a worrying ironic twist, ‘Gene succumbs out of his love for Alma, which his father, by touching his wife inappropriately, not only mocks his love, but also his masculinity. Most importantly, ‘Gene's fall from wisdom is midwifed by Wise, a childhood friend whose simplistic racial politics ‘Gene had hitherto managed to transcend. So, what is the play really suggesting, especially, when ‘Gene's violent attack on his father is linked to an evocation of the childhood incident of Wise 'putting the nigger punk in his place by killing his black puppy?'. There seems to be a dangerous allusion to a return of the repressed, an insurmountable black self-hatred that remains inscribed in the black unconscious, and which returns, with predictably destructive result, even in the best of us. This cyclic cross-generational family memory of violence, self-destruction and mutual denigration, that lies at the core of the play, and which casts a dangerous shadow over an otherwise superb play.
Yet, despite this fatalistic vision, Yellowman remains a powerful celebration of love, life and daring to rise, even when all forces seem bent on keeping us on our knees, broken and useless. It to this defiant affirmation of life and hope unforgettably brought to life on stage by the two actors, that Yellowman pays tribute.