I loved this play.
Conversations about race and gender stereotypes are usually as appealing as sticking your tongue into a vegemite-baited mousetrap. But playwright Lydia Diamond has a deft, modern hand, and Smart People tackles the ticklish topic with wit, perspicacity, and heartfelt characters. It’s especially well-suited for this town full of I-know-better-than-anyone-else-how-to-save-the-world missionaries of the mind.
Let’s talk about the actors first. They were startlingly good. The ensemble cast featured Gregory Perri as the aptly named Brian White, a Caucasian Harvard scientist passionate about proving a neurological genesis of racism. His well-intentioned, if myopic, pursuit blinds him to the potentially catastrophic consequences of his work.
Lorene Chelsey plays the captivating Valerie Johnston. Vignettes of the aspiring actress auditioning provide Diamond an easy canvas to showcase blatant typecasting, and Valerie’s own mouthiness, constantly needing to direct the director. Chelsey’s comic timing is pitch perfect. The lone artist among scientists, Valerie is driven by emotion rather than research.
Foil to Valerie is hot-headed resident surgeon Jackson Moore, played with tightly tamped fury by Jaysen Wright. Jackson is dually a victim of racial oppression and his own temper. You’re kept guessing whether the blockades to his success are deeply embedded institutional racism, his own hubris, or the boulder sized chip on his shoulder. Kudos to Wright’s nuanced portrayal of Jackson – the young doctor is Obama-level sexy-cool, but you get the feeling he’s barricading himself from true connection . . . or might blow at any moment.
For me the standout was Sue Jin Song as frenetic tenured Harvard psychology professor Dr. Ginny Yang. Ginny is tightly wound and ferocious in deconstructing Asian female stereotypes and empowering Asian women to rebuild themselves as they see fit. Yet she herself ricochets between refusing to be marginalized by her ethnic and gender identity, and exploiting its most glaring facets when it suits her. Despite her precocious early successes, Ginny is a hamster on a wheel, unable to stop running for fear of falling behind, moving too fast to see what it is she might really want out of life. Her boon to the conversation is the sharp reminder that conversations about race are too often only about black and white.
The underlying premise of Smart People is that these smart people should be able to figure “this” out. Each character is climbing the ladder of success, striving to be the lead voice in their field. Despite, at times, dialogue that becomes a tad didactic Hyde Park Corner, we revel in the droll wit, tableau staging, rapid-fire banter, and fire-bomb fury. Yet enlightenment and evolution founder on the rocky shores of identity politics, even with hard science as the roadmap. Instead, the so-called smart people make a mess of things. As the characters tumble in and out of each other’s lives, wrestling with issues of sex and race (and I do mean sex), they soar, and, inevitably, suffer the academic fall of Icarus.
As gifted as were the actors, much credit goes to director Seema Sueko for her deft management of Diamond’s script. Visual vignettes were as impactful as biting zingers, and Sueko’s shrewd direction elevated the wordy play. She manages to spotlight the elephant on the stage, while at the same time soft-lighting the tiny truth cowering in the corner – these geniuses are at heart people desperate to be loved.
Misha Kachman’s striking multi-color, multi-level, shape-shifting set reflected the knotty topics under discussion, and lighting Design by Xavier Pierce made the most of it. The sound and projection by Andre Pluess and Jared Mezzocchi really popped. Costuming by Dede Ayite added subtle emphasis to each character’s quadrant.
I did bump up against the ending. Each character at different times fell prey to ethnic bias, or exploited their own stereotypes. Each was permitted to grow and evolve from the misstep, except the white man. It seems his solecism alone was unforgiveable. The finale of the overall strong play fizzled rather than punched out, Obama’s inauguration highlighting the script’s dated patina rather than adding any perspicacity. Having said that, the rest of the elevated performance more than bore up the slack.
This is a commendable production, stomping along where most tiptoe, and doing it in a droll and earnest manner. One more draft would get Smart People to its sweet spot. But kudos to Diamond for tilting at the perilous windmills of race and gender identity, and white privilege, and the indisputable conclusion: “It’s complicated.” What isn’t complicated? Your choice: Go see it before it’s gone.
Smart People is playing at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater through May 21, 2017 (1101 Sixth St. SW, Washington DC 20024). Running time: two and a half hours, with one 15 minute intermission. For information or tickets call 202-488-3300 or click here.
Photo Credit: C. Stanley Photography