by John Stoltenberg
Racism, presumed in polite circles to be no laughing matter, gets a hilariously smart deconstruction in Lydia R. Diamond’s Smart People. Arena Stage has given this 2016 play its DC premiere in a nifty production pointedly directed by Seema Sueko that makes Diamond’s every zinger zing and stinger sting. And scarcely a racist presumption goes unscathed.
But a lot of this comedy-with-a-woke-conscience is the kind of cringe-worthy funny that can make one wonder whom it’s meant to amuse. Smart People doesn’t pull punches. It strides right up to the tense brink of so many racial and ethnic stereotypes and prejudices that it’s a wonder the whole undertaking doesn’t tumble off a PC cliff. More than once I found myself thinking, Thank god this play was written by a woman of color; I don’t think a white guy could get away with it, much less come up with it.
Diamond, whose scripting cred includes a year as Arena Stage resident playwright, gives us four characters whose demographic diversity will drive her storytelling. We are introduced to them one by one, each standing in a cell on Set Designer Micha Kachman’s two-story grid, which seems as much a statement about putting people in boxes as a very fun way to stage this play.
Two of the play’s four brains on board are tenured Harvard University professors. Brian White is, as his surname says, white, and his specialty is neuro-science. He studies the relationship between the brain and subconscious racist prejudice—how our brains are wired to perceive patterns of racial identity in ways that shape discriminatory attitudes and behavior. His research shtick, which he is quite proud of, is gathering clinical data to prove that white people are racist. This plays rather like a running joke—like, duh. But it’s also the notional glue in the delightfully intertwined interactions of the four characters, all of whom in different combos keep bumping up against whatever’s going on there in our national noggin.
(While watching Smart People I was never sure whether Diamond had made this neuro-science stuff up. It sometimes seemed it could be fanciful. Turns out, as I learned later, the science of the racist brain is a thing. Which in its own way makes Smart People as mind-blowing as Tom Stoppard’s The Hard Problem, the play about the brain science of consciousness recently seen at Studio Theatre.)
Brian, besides priding himself in his scientific pursuit, is one of those preening learned liberals who would without hesitation white-splain racism to a person of color. Gregory Perri plays Brian so spot-on clueless smart guy it’s embarrassing. And I mean that totally as a compliment.
Ginny Yang is a Harvard colleague of Brian’s, a professor of psychology. She brings to the play’s interrogation of racism the insider insight of someone whose academic field is race and identity among Asian American women, who herself is Japanese American and Chinese American, and who in private practice counsels Asian American women. Her research findings show “a direct correlation of racist stereotyping to low self-esteem, depression, and anxiety.” So she’s smart, alright. Ginny is also a snooty shopaholic and can’t be bothered joining a faculty committee addressing institutional racism at the school: “I’m uncomfortable celebrating my marginalization with other disgruntled marginalized people.” Sue Jin Song as Ginny gets these contradictions and more and makes of them a wonderfully nuanced performance.
Not a PhD like Brian and Ginny but an up-and-coming MD is Jackson Moore, who is African American and an intern at Harvard Medical School. When we first meet him, he is on duty in the emergency room having been called on the carpet for amputating the toe of an obese seventy-something diabetic. Immediately we get Jackson’s place in the play as a highly educated, talented, and yes articulate young black man who knows about racism because it happens to him, all the time. His anger is real and venting it has got him in trouble. He’s also got a brother who’s a recovering crack addict to whom racism arguably happened worse and to whom Jackson sends money for food. He’s a guy with a big heart that he is trying to keep from hardening, and Jaysen Wright captures the role’s complexity with such winning grace that his likability quotient lifts the entire play.
Valerie Johnston, also African American, is a young actor with an MFA in Acting from the prestigious A.R.T. in Cambridge. But her talent, training, and attractive instrument don’t get her the same caliber of roles that her white classmates are landing. She’s a feisty sort, though, determined to make it in a profession that is particularly susceptible to racist brain imaging, by audiences and directors alike. The script doesn’t make this explicit but it’s clearly what Valerie is doing in Diamond’s cast of characters: Smart as she is, she’s not seen past her skin. Lorene Chesely in the role makes us believe completely in Valerie’s vivacious presence as a performer, plus the grit that lets nothing stop her.
Over the course of the play, in a sequence of sometimes overlapping scenes, Diamond mixes and matches these four characters. Jackson and Valerie have a fling that turns tempestuous. Brian and Jackson compete as basketball buddies and dudes. Financially strapped Valerie gets work as Brian’s assistant. Ginny and Brian have a fling that turns tempestuous. And so forth. The flow of two-hander scenes can read a little random, like meetups of convenience not impelled by any plot. But Diamond’s purpose is not to make a traditionally well-made play; it’s to dramatize how racism can pop up in all the little exchanges in life that seem innocuous but really aren’t. And the scenes she writes to show that are brilliantly sharp as texts.
Here, for example, is such an exchange between Brian and Ginny. It takes place in Brian’s office. Brian has just told Ginny, not without self-pity, about the flak he catches for his work.
GINNY: So the work I do…. Perhaps it’s given more….room, because I’m not railing against the system that created the circumstances.
BRIAN: By circumstance you mean genocide, slavery, internment?
GINNY: Look, I’ve identified issues in specific Asian American populations, depression, anxiety. I’ve acknowledged the unfair social…dynamic
GINNY: Do you not get tired of that word? I’ve pointed out the ‘dynamic’ that feeds the cycle. But I address the cycle. What good does running around screaming slavery and internment do now?
BRIAN: What about the white individuals who made the bullshit that makes the low self-esteem?
GINNY: I’m more concerned with the female Asian American individuals who are just trying to get jobs, date, have decent family lives…. It is what it is. Why not just give people a better set of tools for navigating it.
Smart People is smartly set in Cambridge 2007–2009 in the run-up to Obama’s first Inauguration, a time when the topic of race was in the national conversation at a whole new level of being taken seriously. Obama’s candidacy had made that happen. The last scene of Smart People takes place at his Inauguration—with fantastic flashback effects by Sound Designer Andre Pluess and Projection Designer Jared Mezzocchi. After two acts of nonstop laughter, this moment of celebration seemed to me suddenly sobering and saddening—because it so vividly pointed to a period that since November is no more.
People who fancy themselves smart should not miss this show, heartbreaking ending and all. For Smart People reminds us—with biting wit, much humor, and great affection—that there are difficult conversations about race that still need to be had. And we can still have them.
Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, with an intermission.