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BWW Review: SMART PEOPLE at Monument Theatre Company

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Does intelligence make a white person any less innately racist?

BWW Review: SMART PEOPLE at Monument Theatre Company After a long time away from live theater, "Smart People" was the perfect show to return to. As an artwork, it has a supreme blend of moments to make you laugh, cringe, and question. As a performance, it has the actors with the chops to make this daring piece come to life in riveting ways.

Celeste:

After a long time away from live theater, "Smart People" was the perfect show to return to. As an artwork, it has a supreme blend of moments to make you laugh, cringe, and question. As a performance, it has the actors with the chops to make this daring piece come to life in riveting ways.

In a time filled with political unrest and the need for racial reckoning, "Smart People" could be considered a big risk, but kudos to Monument Theatre Company for taking on such an intimidating subject matter with such grace and gravity.

"Smart People" relies on a cast of only four, and a formidable cast it was.

Jamaal McCray plays a young Dr. Jackson Moore seething with passion and touches of anger at his inability to make his mark and make a difference without confronting obstacle after obstacle. His portrayal had a rawness to it that made the character gritty and deep in unexpected ways and kept him from being wrapped up in the trope of an "angry black man."

Barbara Michelle Dabney as Valerie Johnston is a bouncing, bubbly bit of brilliance who you can't help but laugh with and root for. She laid bare the struggle of being policed on both sides of the racial divide, being "too white" or "too black" or just plain too much. Her irresistible positivity added much-needed levity to some of the harsher moments in the show.

Kim Egan as Ginny Yang and Maverick Schmit as Brian White create a seething blend of privilege, narcissism, racism, exoticism, sexism, and fragility that truly make you want to squirm and also take a deep dive into your psyche to evaluate where you've been failing. There are harsh realities that are brought to the light in their relationship, and each delivers the depth demanded by their role. Egan comes across as initially confident, strong-willed, and assured but is disrupted by moments of passivity and face-saving techniques that show her wounded side. Schmit will rub you all the wrong ways but still leave you wanting him to make it through to the conclusion he so desperately needs to reach.

And what is that conclusion? The play doesn't seem to want to give a clear answer. Instead, it invites questions, which is a sign of truly great theater. You leave the theater with questions, which can spark conversations, which (hopefully) beget actions.

Dylan:

Does intelligence make a white person any less innately racist? How about a white neurologist who actually does research into his own racism?

Those questions hang over the Chicago writer Lydia R. Diamond's play, "Smart People," a piece at focused on the difficulties of racial and sexual identity, and set on and around the campus of Harvard University.

For much of "Smart People", you wonder if that is supposed to be the main takeaway: there is no avoiding racial unease and doubt in today's fractured America, even in a world that is supposed to run primarily on science and data. Not only does the show imply that interracial sexuality is fraught with systemic obstacles, it suggests that interracial hook-ups are any easier. Jackson and Valerie, the doctor and the actress, can't get through a meal without fighting over who has the most valid "black card" to play.

The show was very well cast. Valerie and Jackson emerge as the more empathetic pair. Barbara Michelle Dabney is a very likable and honest actress, playing a genuinely luminous actress whose toils playwright Diamond knows and understands. And there are a few moments when Dabney really breaks out of the show's more protective mold. Jamaal McCray is a consistently restless actor, always right in the moment and, you feel, on the edge of something. You perk up as he contemplates taking a chance or delivering a line. There's not a weak link in the bunch. Jackson strikes just the right balance between arrogance and sincerity in Brian (Maverick Schmit), his cockiness slowly deflating as he slides from Harvard golden boy to pariah. While his role involves some repetition, his final reckoning packs the most weight as he blurts out wounded statements that expose the deep-rooted sense of white privilege he tries to deny. Ginny Yang (a take-no-prisoners Kim Egan) is a Harvard psychology professor, American by birth, but with both Japanese and Chinese ancestry. Radiating a brisk self-confidence that can come across as imperious, she's first seen giving a presentation about her latest findings and doesn't stop until the end.

Don't miss your chance to witness this sensational return to the stage for Monument Theatre Company. Shows run now through August 15th. Performances are Thursday through Saturday at 8 PM and Sunday at 2 PM. Admission is pay what you can because Monument Theatre Company believes theater is for ALL.


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