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BWW Review: SMART PEOPLE Uses Comedy to Tackle Race at Arena Stage

As topics go, you couldn't pick a more immediate one than race in America. And as cities go, Washington is an apt location for a production of Lydia R. Diamond's SMART PEOPLE. It's set during the Obama era and takes on the topic of race with biting comedy. Seema Sueko directs a new run at Arena Stage, featuring a four-person cast that is combustible and exciting to watch.

The charismatic Lorene Chesley plays Valerie Johnston, a young African American woman with an acting MFA who portrays Portia in a production of JULIUS CAESAR. Jaysen Wright plays the emotionally complex Jackson Moore, a brilliant but hotheaded African American medical student completing a surgical internship but somehow finding the time to help run a clinic for low-income patients. Jackson is basketball buddies with BrIan White (the sympathetically nerdy Gregory Perri), a literally white, tenured Harvard professor/neuro-psychiatrist running a highly controversial study proving that all whites are biologically racist - even well-meaning, left-leaning Whole Foods shoppers. Brian wants recognition for his groundbreaking work, but Valerie, also his research assistant, points out the work isn't revelatory at all: of course all white people are racist. Brian Crosses paths with Ginny Yang (the strong and funny Sue Jin Song), an Asian-American psych professor, and it seems he may have met his match.

At the beginning, thoughtful set and lighting design (Misha Kachman and Xavier Pierce, respectively) sections the actors off across two levels. They each occupy their own box in the small world of Cambridge, Massachusetts. At first, they're isolated, holding conversations with unseen others. The focus alternates quickly among each of them, creating a sensation of boiling tension until their trajectories start to converge.

SMART PEOPLE premiered in Boston in 2014, and the action takes place in the 2007-2008 election season, culminating in a nostalgic, larger-than-life projected video of Barack Obama's inauguration. This timeline is ironic and feels almost foreboding as we near the end of Trump's first 100 days in office.

However, the timing doesn't always work to the show's advantage. A lot has happened in the past couple of years, and not just in the form of the new administration. Today's audiences expect complex, nuanced takes on race - which SMART PEOPLE provides - but it seems a step or two behind the curve in an age that has brought us layered satire such as the horror-comedy film GET OUT and albums as deep as LEMONADE and DAMN. SMART PEOPLE skewers white liberal ignorance and arrogance, but doesn't get under the skin as sharply as it should in this moment. Its R-rated sitcom one-liners extract big laughs, but a few of those laughs feel dated and even cheap when they're in response to yet another joke about Ginny's shopping addiction.

Also reminiscent of a sitcom is the narrative, wherein the characters acknowledge aloud the "six degrees of Kevin Bacon" manner in which they all meet. It's contrived, but the loose story acts as a necessary framework for a series of stimulating, worthwhile one-on-one conversations on perceptions of race.

Thought-provoking enough, and sure to spark discussion, SMART PEOPLE's strong suit is its solid actors, who breathe reality and humanity into this set of four intellectuals. This country's pressing racial issues are ongoing, and the play offers a valid voice in a vital, ongoing conversation.

Running time: approximately 2 hours 30 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.

SMART PEOPLE plays through May 21, 2017, at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for the American Theater, 1101 Sixth Street SW, Washington, DC 20024. Tickets can be purchased at arenastage.org or by calling 202-488-3300.

Photo: clockwise from top left - Jaysen Wright as Jackson Moore, Sue Jin Song as Ginny Yang, Lorene Chesley as Valerie Johnston and Gregory Perri as BrIan White; photo by C. Stanley Photography, courtesy of Arena Stage.


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From This Author Barbara Johnson