BWW Review: Smart Money is on Lydia Diamond's SMART PEOPLE
Written by Lydia Diamond, Directed by Peter DuBois; Scenic Design, Alexander Dodge; Costume Design, Junghyun Georgia Lee; Lighting Design, Paul Gallo; Sound Design, M.L. Dogg; Projection Design, Aaron Rhyne; Casting, Alaine Alldaffer; Production Stage Manager, Emily F. McMullen; Stage Manager, Kevin Schlagle
CAST: McKinley Belcher III, Miranda Craigwell, Roderick Hill, Eunice Wong
Performances extended through July 6 by Huntington Theatre Company at the Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-266-0800 or www.huntingtontheatre.org
Never mind rocket science. It seems that brain science is a far more expansive and challenging field of study. Huntington Playwriting Fellow Lydia Diamond delves into uncharted territory in her provocative new comedy Smart People, daring to budge the boundaries of polite conversation about racism by posing the question of whether our beliefs and prejudices are hard-wired. Inspired by actual research by a pair of social psychologists into implicit bias (the unconscious ways in which people discriminate), Diamond redirects the focus to a fictional academic study of neurological responses the brain has to racial images. She introduces four incredibly smart Ivy Leaguers of mixed racial backgrounds, tosses in a plethora of preconceived notions, and blends in the context of the 2008 election of President Barack Obama to craft this smart and surprisingly humorous play.
As a playwright of color, Diamond's choice to write a white male protagonist is a steep challenge, especially in light of the fact that the Huntington Theatre Company's audiences skew white and older. However, by assigning the role of neuropsychiatrist and Harvard professor who studies perceptions of racial identity to Brian White (Roderick Hill), the only non-minority character in the play, Diamond creates dramatic conflict. Brian's African-American friends Jackson Moore (McKinley Belcher III) and Valerie Johnston (Miranda Craigwell), and his Chinese-Japanese-American girlfriend Ginny Yang (Eunice Wong) are not entirely comfortable with his work and his outspoken discussion of it, leading to situations that reinforce the societal and cultural norms that Brian purports to be trying to change.
The macro theme of Smart People is racism, but it plays out in the micro in the personalities and life stories of the quartet, as well as in the relationships among them. As much as Diamond employs stereotypes to portray the day-to-day racism encountered by people of color, her writing defines three-dimensional characters and is sharp enough to steer clear of clichés. As a Harvard psychology professor who studies race and identity among Asian-American women, Ginny shares a professional interest with Brian who admires her research and writing. They meet cute and fall into a non-traditional girlfriend/boyfriend relationship with an abundance of obstacles, only some of which are due to cultural differences. Jackson is a Harvard Medical School intern on a surgical rotation whose temper causes him problems which he often blames on institutional racism, while recent graduate of the American Repertory Theater's ART Institute Valerie struggles to overcome stereotypes when she auditions for acting roles. All are quick to identify what they perceive as racism directed at them, but not so astute as to recognize their own biases, such as when Valerie is being treated by Jackson in the emergency room and asks him when she'll get to see a doctor.
Director Peter DuBois gets terrific individual performances from his actors, even as they gel as a cohesive ensemble. Hill never stumbles while traveling Brian's rocky road from acclaim as an ace scientist to the land of the dispossessed, where his friends inform him that he is being treated like a black man. His body language and demeanor reflect the change in his circumstances as his confidence wanes and he is forced to question his own motives. In his early scenes with Wong, their connection is on an intellectual level, but they peel away the layers to share more feelings with each other. She maintains a tough outer shell to deal with her clients and the retail world she frequents, but gradually transforms into a softer self, acknowledging her own humanity and developing into a more nurturing partner to Brian.
Jackson and Valerie wear their flaws on their sleeves, as it were, and watching Belcher and Craigwell parry each other's verbal attacks is part of the fun. They may be a match, but it is not made in heaven, and their mutual abrasiveness brings to mind the old joke about how porcupines make love. While both characters are career-driven, Diamond infuses them with a mélange of traits and emotions which surface in the context of their personal relationships. Jackson is hotheaded and defensive, leading to trouble with authority in the hospital setting, but Belcher shows his caring side and commitment at the clinic he heads to help abused women. Valerie's statuesque beauty helps her command a room, but her esteem issues frustrate her progress and Craigwell gets inside her skin to help us feel her struggle.
People with short attention spans need not worry that scenes will go on too long, but those who suffer from ADD may find it a challenge to keep up. The quick pacing in Smart People is similar to the fast cuts in many television serials (think West Wing), and the judicious use of projections (designed by Aaron Rhyne) makes it feel cinematic at times. After awhile, I was hoping for fewer scenes, but each of longer duration, and more time spent with the ensemble onstage together, rather than in their separate corners.
Alexander Dodge's two-tiered scenic design provides a quadrangle where four scenes sometimes play out simultaneously, or in rapid-fire succession, with set pieces sliding in and out from the wings. Lighting Designer Paul Gallo guides our focus to the appropriate quadrant and Junghyun Georgia Lee's costumes help to define the characters. M.L. Dogg's sound design includes some interesting free jazz between scenes and the de rigueur cell phone ring tones. However, the conversations in the upper stage left box didn't always project well to where I was seated on the opposite aisle.
It should be noted that this Huntington Theatre production is the world premiere of Smart People and, as is the nature with new plays, it is evolving under the stewardship of Artistic Director DuBois. Given the success of Diamond's debut play Stick Fly on the Wimberly Theatre stage in 2010, and the popular demand which has already resulted in two extensions of the run of this play, the smart money is on Smart People.
Photo credit: T. Charles Erickson (Eunice Wong and McKinley Belcher III - top; Miranda Craigwell and Roderick Hill - bottom)