Thursday, June 05, 2014

Smart People by Lydia Diamond

My wife thought Smart People by Lydia Diamond was going to be one of those plays where four people sit around and talk. According to the ads, they would be talking about privilege and ambition and race. She was right for about 5 minutes.

The opening four person dinner party ended mid-scene. Then we were transported back a year to meet all the characters. Brian White is a white professor at Harvard who seems to have found a biological reason for racism. Ginny Yang is a MacArthur Fellow at the university who practices as a clinical psychologist and is doing research on young Asian women. Jackson Moore is Brian's best (only?) friend, a black doctor still in training. Valerie Johnston is an aspiring African-American actress.

They meet, they mate, they talk.

The play is structured very cinematically with lots of quick cuts between scenes, sometimes alternating between scenes that are staged on different areas of the versatile set. Much of the play is written as dialogues, between characters or, in many cases between one of the quartet and an unseen other. Jackson has an argument with his supervisor, for example, but we only hear his side of the story; similarly we hear Ginny's part of a discussion with a shopkeeper about honoring a coupon. Eventually we get back to the dinner party and see what happens afterwards.

The central subject of the play is race, and there are lots of interesting permutations and observations throughout. Ginny complains when the others think of race as "black and white" and excludes myriad others. Brian, studying race, does not use Asian subjects because they're complicated. (Agreed; I just got a Federal form and under race, the "Asian" menu included: Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Pacific Islander... and a Chinese-American whose ancestors worked the laundries in San Francisco is very different from the guy who moved here from Shanghai 5 years ago.)

There's pushback on Brian from the university and his friends. Brian thinks his research will force people to confront and deal with their inherent racism. But does proving racism is biological excuse people for being racist? What sort of racial feeling does a parent with an adopted child of another race have? 

The acting was all very good, and I thought Miranda Craigwell as Valerie was a standout. It may be that she had some of the best lines and a broad range to play: comic, romantic, provocateur and as an actor on an audition trying some different ways to play a character.

The characters find themselves in situations that force the audience to reconcile with their racial context. Jackson loses his temper at work: angry black man or just an angry guy? Ginny has a weird shopping addiction (Imelda Marcos-like?). In the situations where we hear only their side of a conversation, the audience is co-opted into playing the part of hospital administrator, or clothing store clerk. We judge them, and it's clear from how they respond that they feel judged. 

I found the play a bit too ambitious. I respect the endeavor, but I think the subject matter is so vast that many of the intriguing observations got short shrift and ended up being fairly shallow. That said, the story is entertaining and the play will likely start lots of conversations as viewers pick up the threads left dangling by the characters.

Ultimately the show does a good job of showing how race is a context in every situation while portraying four individuals dealing with those situations. Currently, it's also a bit long at over 2 hours plus intermission. There's lots of good material here and if Diamond edits and shapes it, I think the show will improve.

Smart People is a Huntington Theater production currently playing at the Calderwood Pavillion in the South End

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