At the Writers Gillian Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Glencoe – “Smart People” at the Writers Theatre is filled with challenging and stimulating ideas on a whole cluster of hot button themes like race, class, ethnicity, personal identity, and sex. The Lydia Diamond play has so much on its plate that it might be more satisfying as a reading experience, allowing an individual the opportunity to absorb Diamond’s ideas at a more leisurely and reflective pace.
The smart people of the title are four youngish, very bright, and very articulate people all connected in some way with Harvard University. Neuro psychiatrist Brian White has a double doctorate and teaches in at the university. Ginny Yang is a professor of psychology at the university with a genius grant in her resume. Jackson Moore is a surgical intern at the Harvard medical school. Valerie Johnston is a recent graduate of the Harvard Masters program in acting and trying to break into the theater.
The foursome is a diverse lot. Brian is white (just like his last name). Ginny is mixed Japanese and Chinese. Jackson and Valerie are African American. They are all enmeshed in the play’s chewy themes as well as pairing off sexually, Jackson with Valerie and Ginny with Brian.
Brian is the alpha dog in the quartet, at least intellectually. He has been perfecting a scientific study that he says proves that white people are innate racists. They don’t come by their racism from social contacts, its embedded in their brains and he has the lab tests and brain wave charts to validate his conclusion. In his scientific view, it’s nature and not nurture that creates racism in society.
Brian’s study is so radical and so controversial that Harvard is about to remove him from the faculty, even though he has tenure. Brian is also an abrasive young man who does not suffer fools gladly. In short he rubs people the wrong way, but then so does Jackson, who is feuding with the medical school over a surgical procedure (he removed a patient’s toe, out of necessity he insists). Ginny gets along with people, assisted by a promiscuous sex life. She also has a shopping addiction and deeply resents living up to the stereotype of the compliant Asian woman.
The three non-white characters are all ensnared by their race and ethnic heritage. One of the accomplishments of “Smart People” is the playwright’s skill at portraying racism as seen through the sensibilities of the victims. But the four are also victims of their own stereotypes. In the first act Valerie goes to the Harvard hospital where Jackson is on night duty to get treatment for a cut she received while on stage. She mistakes Jackson for a nurse (not a black doctor) and Jackson thinks her injury came from a punch thrown by a brutal boyfriend (isn’t that what boyfriends do to their girlfriends in the black community?). As to Ginny’s accessible sex life, it’s because “I’m a slut. Not because I’m Asian.”
Even Brian, a white man and thus presumably in the racial driver’s seat, comments “I’m just a white guy who wanted to know what it meant, in my brain, to be a white guy.” What Brian does know for sure is that whites who insist they are well-meaning liberals are racially intolerant at their core because of brain action they can’t control. Those liberals will not thank Brian for demonstrating scientifically that their good feelings about themselves actually mask a racist base.
The play works best as a purveyor of ideas and not as a set of engrossing human dramas. The hookups are not exciting and the characters range from frequently obnoxious (Brian) to inoffensive (Valerie). None of them could carry the play without Diamond’s articulate and original exploration of the themes her script serves up.
Each of the four harbors grievances about how they are perceived racially, ethnically, intellectually, and professionally by the world around them. Some of the themes are examined in eloquent monologues and some as crisp give and take exchanges among the characters. That is a lot for the audience to digest on the wing, complicated by the unconventional slant Diamond presents on topics most audience members, especially those who consider themselves prejudice free, felt they understood.
The play is being staged in the intimate Gillian Theatre. The play visually is constructed as an abstraction for many of its scenes. Projections of headshot of people of various ethnic heritages are flashed on a giant screen at the rear of the stage, the portraits interspersed with Mondrian-like geometric forms. Characters speak from different levels of the stage when they aren’t organized in informal groupings. The play often thus takes on an abstract feeling, which, combined with the overall lack of action makes the work an unexciting viewing experience for much of the running time.
“Smart People” is set during the presidential campaign and election from 2007 to 2009, the start of the Obama years. It actually ends with the Obama swearing in ceremony in Washington, a perplexing conclusion to a play that had not been political. Indeed, the play doesn’t end so much as stop, as if the playwright had delivered her say on her stimulating themes and put her characters back in a dramatic box.
The cast is led by Erik Hellman, who dominates the show with his startling theorizing and his abrasive personality. Julian Parker’s Jackson is oddly soft spoken, keeping his intense feelings under wraps. A more aggressive Jackson would have energized the staging and Parker needs to project more. Kayla Carter (Valerie) and Deanna Myers (Ginny) are both fine, especially Myers, whose Ginny notes sarcastically how she is being excluded from the discussions among the other three characters. “It’s just black and white. So I’ll just sit here and let you all work that out.”
Halle Gordon does an effective job of orchestrating a very verbal play of ideas. The first act is a little too long but that’s on the playwright. The designers all do their job well—Collette Pollard (scenery), Izumi Inaba (costumes), Kathy Perkins (lighting), Richard Woodbury (original music and sound), and Deirdre Searcy (projections).
“Smart People” has its flaws but its virtues win out. We don’t lack for plays these days that take on racial themes, usually with a high emotional and sometimes violent content. Diamond seduces attentive viewers into rethinking their positions on racial and ethnic and class ideas, especially if that viewer is white and middle class (or higher) and living in a comfort zone of presumed racial tolerance. They will leave the theater unsettled and possibly, like me, wonder where to obtain a copy of the script to examine at their own pace where Diamond is coming from.
The show gets a rating of.
“Smart People” runs through June 10 at the Writers Theatre Gillian Theatre, 325 Tudor Court. Performances are Tuesday through Friday at 7:30 p.m. with select Wednesday 3 p.m. matinees, Saturday at 3 and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 2 and 6 p.m. Tickets are $35 to $80. Call 847 242 6000 or visit www.writerstheatre.org.
Contact Dan at:ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com April 2018
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