Review: Interracial Relationships Get a Sharply Satirical Treatment in Lydia Diamond's SMART PEOPLE

By: Feb. 22, 2016
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Fifty-two years ago many considered it a great breakthrough that Bill Manhoff's two-person romantic comedy, THE OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT, was playing on Broadway with black Diana Sands playing opposite white Alan Alda.

Joshua Jackson and Ann Son
(Photo: Matthew Murphy)

The play wasn't written as a romance involving an interracial couple and in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement the fact that audiences could see Alda and Sands play out their antics without a word spoken about their ethnic differences in a play set in 1964 was seen as a progressive step.

In her new sharply satiric comedy, Smart People, playwright Lydia Diamond is having none of that. For three of its characters, the awareness of racial issues are just a natural part of their everyday lives. The fourth, the play's only white person, has the privilege of getting to choose it to be.

The action begins in the fall of 2007, when Americans are just beginning to get acquainted with the man they'll elect as their next president, Barack Obama, and that fourth character, Brian (Joshua Jackson), a Harvard sociology professor, is conducting studies that lead to the conclusion that all white people are inherently racist. His finds are not making the university happy, and he's been losing funding.

When psychology professor Ginny (Anne Son) grants his request for her phone number, she's intrigued but not making any promises. A woman of both Chinese and Japanese descent, her studies identify relationships with white guys who exoticize them as a reason for depression among Asian-American women.

While Brian is an annoyingly alpha male who wears his sensitive ally status on his sleeve, Ginny is impressed that he's not put off by her intelligence and aggressively strong nature, though she keeps her heart heavily guarded. Separately, both actors are terrific, but their characters' tense attraction crackles when they're together, especially in a post-coital moment where Ginny angrily gives Brian the subservient stereotype she thinks he wants, and Brian, though put-off, is not exactly rejecting the sex that comes with it.

Tessa Thompson and Mahershala Ali
?(Photo: Matthew Murphy)

Brian stays in shape playing basketball with his pal Jackson (Mahershala Ali), a dark-skinned black man who's a surgical intern and the head of a free clinic. Like Brian and Ginny, Jackson has an aggressive personality, but for him it carries the danger of being labeled as an angry black man. While Jackson likes Brian, he also feels the white guy's research into racism is a poor substitute for his first-hand experience.

Lastly, there's Valerie (Tessa Thompson), a light-skinned black aspiring actor who resents being typecast as housekeepers and baby-mamas. When Valerie gets treated by Brian after cutting her forehead in an accident, they both make race-based assumptions about each other. A smooth player, Jackson has no trouble getting what he wants from Valerie on their first date but their relationship is a bumpy one. Ali and Thompson ground the play with fine realistic performances.

Circumstances provide for more assumptions and awkward moments as the foursome start mixing their interactions. Diamond's crisp and clever dialogue is accented by director Kenny Leon's slick production utilizing Riccardo Hernandez's sparse set of moving pieces backed by a long curved screen for Zachary G. Borovay's happy beautiful mosaic of projections. Zane Mark's snazzy jazz scoring provides a breezy mood.

The Smart People Diamond puts in front of us deal with human emotions professionally, and while they, in varying degrees, display a healthy willingness to communicate on racial issues, their talk often reveals a side of themselves they'd rather not admit to having. Smart People is very funny because it reflects a very sympathetic human foible; the desire resolve our racial conflicts without messing things up every time we open our mouths.


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