Smart People, Lecturing
During the overlong and talkie play, Smart People, directed by Kenny Leon, at Second Stage Theatre off-Broadway, I started to hear lectures and debates rather then dialogue and interactions. Lydia R. Diamond has certainly written a highly intelligent witty play about race, culture, white privilege, identity mixed around with some psychology, neurology, and sociology, all being discussed by smart educated characters. It’s pretty heady stuff, and thought provoking on many many levels, and from numerous perspectives, very funny at times, but in the end, I thought, what does it all mean, and where are we going with this? These actors are playing their roles, beautifully I will say, engaging and messing around with ideas of prejudice and racial stereotypes both by joking about them, inhabiting them, and endlessly getting angry about them: so much fighting and arguing, so much joking, and being offended. And I couldn’t really tell what the overall point is, except that racism is in our blood, or is it?
It’s a tricky thing, how we take in and perceive identity and racism as one of the characters says to her patient. It’s also tricky in this overly contrived play, how to intersect and weave these four characters’ lives with each other in ways that feel authentic and emotional realistic. Here is where I think Diamond fails. The collisions are mostly surprisingly random and sometimes unbelievable. Let me try to lay it out for you. And stay with me because it’s a lot to try to explain. Ginny, brilliantly portrayed by Anne Son, is super driven and confident (to the point of being seen as arrogant and impossible to connect with). She meets Brian, another professor at Harvard when they both arrive early for a rescheduled meeting. These two intellectually aggressive individuals end up dating and forming one complicated albeit interesting relationship. Brian, compassionately and energetically played by Joshua Jackson, carries some of the same personality traits as Ginny, but in his arrogance and out-spokenness, he keeps getting himself into trouble with his higher-ups regarding his research study on racism. As his basketball playing buddy, the intense Jackson, a deep, meaningful and powerful portrayal by Mahershala Lai, states that no Harvard liberal intellectual wants to be shown how they are fundamentally racists, and that, just maybe, might be one of the more meaningful components of this play, but it flies by so quickly, I almost missed it. Jackson himself is an arrogant easy-to-anger type. He’s a Harvard medical school graduate who keeps getting into trouble with his superiors who ‘undermine’ him every chance they can. Is that because of the color of his skin or his chip on his shoulder mentality?
At the hospital where he is doing his rotation, he meets Valerie, a strong Tessa Thompson, an aspiring frustrated actress who has cut her head on a piece of scenery. These two eventually get together for a disastrous dinner date, in one of the sexiest scenes but also one of the most frustrating. Both seem to be on guard, looking for ways to become offended by the other. Her role in this whole entanglement of four seems to be the hardest one to make fit. Valerie struggles against racial casting, but also in making her rent, which she supplements by house cleaning (a complex racial stereotype that is mostly left unaddressed), and also helping Brian in his research office. She also runs into Ginny at the front desk of a clinic when they both stop by to see Jackson (where he also works; for a man on rotation, he certainly has some energy and extra spare time). Ginny and Valerie are there for very different reasons: Ginny to use the clinic to expand her research, and Valerie to attempt to repair the damage done on that first dinner date. Have I connected all the dots? Let’s just say there are a lot of misunderstandings about who these people are and most of these complications are racial based assumptions that cause offense.
It’s as complicated as it sounds, and as angry and contrived as it feels. But I will say, that under difference circumstances I would be very willing to accept these implausible connections, if the heart and the emotional core felt true. Sadly it doesn’t. It feels like a construct framed so a lecture and a theory can be debated and presented to us. The actors work their magic trying to pull us in emotionally (I especially liked Jackson’s delicately balanced Brian) but the depth and language isn’t there to help.
A woman sitting next to us in the theatre during intermission voiced her frustration that this is yet another play about race. Did we really need another play debating race and identity? To her I would say, YES! We do need these discussions and these thoughtful insights, now more then ever (especially in this election year – granted she also stated she loves Rubio -so don’t get me started about Republicans…) but I would argue that in a dramatic piece of theatre, we also need it to be weaved in with real and dynamic relationships and scenarios. Diamond does place this play during the the 2008-9 election year and ends with the swearing in ceremony of President Obama, a very emotional moment in our collective history, but sadly it doesn’t resonate like it should. I remember that exact moment. It was a powerful and emotional event to watch with friends. It was a memorable and moving moment in our history. Their collective response to this moment seemed to have little depth or power. It doesn’t matter how smart these people are, we need them to be real people as well.
Smart People By Lydia R. Diamond; directed by Kenny Leon; sets by Ricardo Hernandez; costumes by Paul Tazewell; lighting by Jason Lyons; sound by Nevin Steinberg; projections by Zachary G. Borovay; music by Zane Mark;
WITH: Mahershala Ali (Jackson), Joshua Jackson (Brian), Anne Son (Ginny) and Tessa Thompson (Valerie).