BWW Interview: Kenny Leon on His Fast-Talking SMART PEOPLE

SMART PEOPLE, written by Lydia R. Diamond, points a critical lens on racism in America just as the Black Lives Matter movement rages and the entertainment industry is accused of systemic racism.

The play, directed by Kenny Leon, focuses on four characters of diverse ethnicity who struggle with occupational and social racism. It takes place in Cambridge, Mass., the galaxy of smart people, as Barack Obama drives for the White House and takes office as the first African-American president.

The opening and final scenes take place amid a grid of headshots - a diverse collection of people -- projected on the back wall. Brian White (Joshua Jackson), a white professor of neuroscience at Harvard, is researching the possibility that white people have a biological predisposition for racism.

Brian's best friend, Jackson Moore (Mahershala Ali), is an African-American surgical intern at a Boston hospital who is battling superiors whom he suspects of racism. Ginny Yang (Anne Son), a Harvard psychology professor, is American by birth with Chinese and Japanese roots. Her practice focuses on the presence of anxiety and depression in Asian-Americans.

Valerie Johnston (Tessa Thompson), an African-American actor, is stymied by the limited roles she's offered.

"I love Lydia's skill set and writing," Leon said. "The way we leave Asian-Americans out of the equation is so profound." Ginny "is so successful at discussing these ideas," he said. "It's timely because we're at a crossroads in our country."

The characters express their experiences with bigotry and resistance in a series of punchy conversations that sometimes segue into one another. "I always listen to the way the play moves musically in my head," said Leon, who won a Tony for directing A RAISIN IN THE SUN starring Denzel Washington. "They slide into scenes with each other and it all leads up to the dinner scene," where they are all together for the first time.

"Race happens in little soundbites, little actions, and I tried to do it in a fluid way on stage. I wanted to tear down the fourth wall and have the audience be the fifth character," said Leon. "Lydia worked very hard not to write a 'liberal' or 'conservative' play. She just wanted to pose the question."

The play's message is undeniable, though Leon disagrees with the premise of Brian's neurological study. "The only agenda we're pushing is that we have a serious problem with race and we have to deal with it," Leon said. "There's hope for the black couple, and at the end of the day we need to get over the mountain and deal with the truth.

"I don't know how racists live with their racism," he said. "We need to take the road of love. I don't think folks are born that way; it's learned and taught out of fear."

The play's sharp edges are softened by humor. "She's such a sophisticated writer: her rhythm and tempo is very intelligent," Leon said of Diamond. "This is a contemporary work about characters who represent different ends of the spectrum." They are flawed because of their humanity. "They eat, sleep, have sex and have a brain and heart. They're trying to connect with each other. Some people might call them selfish, but they're trying to learn about racism in their lives and others'," he said.

Brian's research project leads to surprising results about whites' predisposition to prejudice. These views are not popular with his Harvard superiors and he pays the price professionally. "He's trying to learn about racism through his elitist view of being a white man. His best friend happens to be black and Ginny is trying to do something for Asian women," Leon said.

In addition to being an intern, Jackson runs an emergency clinic in a poor Asian community. "He's trying to deal with his anger, but not trying to let that rule his life. Val has been trained to be a great actress and is a volunteer working for the first African-American to run for president," Leon said. She's seen going door to door courting Obama votes.

Conversations are held at breakneck pace. "I always push them. I don't want them to slow down," he said. "I want the audience to catch up."

Leon said Broadway also needs to amp up to attract more diversity on- and off-stage. "Broadway is the same as Hollywood," he said. "Every few years we say we reached the mountaintop, then we take two steps back. Now we have shows like HAMILTON and The COLOR PURPLE so we're telling more stories," he said.

"It's a big issue subject. We need producers to lead people to the work. Sometimes it's a cultural shift when you have an all-black cast," Leon said. "They have to prep the audience, market and let the audience know you're out there," he said, referring to Broadway's attempts to attract a younger, more diverse theater-going public.

"I want people to enjoy the show," said Leon. "And I want them to still be thinking about it two weeks later."

Smart People is playing through March 6, at the Second Stage Theatre, 305 West 43rd St.

Photo Credit: Walter McBride / WM Photos

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From This Author Naomi Serviss