ACT Theatre, 700 Union St, 292-7676.
Through Aug. 4

Want to know the definition of "unease"? Take an audience full of mostly 30-to-blue-hair-old and overwhelmingly middle-class white season subscribers and say "nigger" in front of them about 150 times. Yeowch.

Yellowman is a play with a message. ("Yellowman" is racist slang, of course, here used to refer to African Americans with lighter skin, as opposed to the darker-skinned "geechies.") I'm always worried about plays with explicit messages--you know, anything with a "post-show discussion"--which are always in danger of devolving into public service announcements, with the characters transformed into poster children and spokespersons.

What's Yellowman's message? It seems to be, "The path to racism is paved with good intentions"; that is, racism is a self-defeating, sadomasochistic endeavor, yet humanity has an almost obsessive, peer-pressure-driven habit of engaging in it anyway. Moreover, even though you may realize all of this and do your damnedest to break the cycle, well, that just ain't as easy as it seems. At least that's what I got out of it--and it is pretty heavy stuff. But this is an engaging story, and writer/star Dael Orlandersmith is an engaging storyteller.

The tale unfolds via two separate monologues told by two lovers (Orlandersmith/ Howard W. Overshown), detailing the couple's relationship from childhood and the internal/external racism they experienced as being a geechie/yellow couple. It's intense, compelling, blessedly non-exploitative, and sometimes even funny. But enjoy the humor while you can--these poor people have very difficult lives, and it is almost impossible to be optimistic about them. You know there won't be a happy ending here--it's not that kind of show.

Does this show get preachy? Here and there, but let's just say that it's organic to the plot. Should you see it? If you've got a craving for a tough, challenging night at the theater, most definitely. If not, see it anyway; the polite and glassy look the audience gets whenever the actors say "nigger" is entertaining as hell.