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Q&A with Yellowman Director Le’Mil Eiland

We sat down with Le’Mil Eiland, a PhD student in Theatre and Performance Studies and the director of Yellowman...

UPStages: What is it about this script that really speaks to you?

LE: I think the work is profound for its artistic and cultural implications. Artistically, Orlandersmith’s use of poetic text reveals the density of the memories that shape us. In addition, Yellowman, for me, is a harsh play, but at its root it’s a love story. And I am always amazed at how love develops in toxic spaces; it speaks to the enduring strength of love. As a theatrical work, Yellowman provides huge challenges to a production team and actors. This play speaks to theatre’s ability to tell stories of a lifetime within an hour and a half. I enjoy journeys and whether reading or seeing this production, Yellowman takes you on a journey.

Upstages: Why do you feel it’s important to bring this story to the University of Pittsburgh community?

LE: My honest reply is I don’t know. I know that I’ve always been overwhelmed by this play-overwhelmed in a good way. I intentionally wanted to present a black woman’s work, because it is so often underrepresented on the stage. In additional, this play-I hope-is a mediation of the residual effects of racial conflict. Much of the conversation about racial tension focuses on tumultuous protest and division. Although set in a different time,* this play considers how vulnerable people navigate memories, love, and a debilitating residue of racism. In thinking through this contemporary moment via the Black Lives Matter movement, I find myself concerned about the residual effects of visual and visceral Black violence. And I don’t know if I, or the play, have any concrete answers when placed in dialogue with this moment. But I also think that theatre, and Yellowman in particular, present a space to think about these problems and hypothesize solutions.

UPStages: Anything else you'd like us to know? 

LE: There is much unseen labor in mounting this show. I believe the actors’ perspectives shifted from the fun of performing to the high stakes of telling the story of these characters lives. I encouraged them to be more concerned about the characters lives than the audience’s reaction. I tried to explain to the production team that, for me, mounting this show was more than just meeting deadlines and producing a product. For me this art requires the level of rigor and investment I hope to illuminate in my historical scholarship. As a director, I coveted this play for a long time; I thought about it, grappled with it, fought its possibilities. Yet, the beautiful moment is when the actors and the production team take the play from me. The play, in many ways, is infused with so many other people’s energy that I steered the direction more so than defined its final outcome. 

*The play’s setting begins in the 1960s.