Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member; photos by Michael Brosilow
On a weekend near the end of March, members of the American Theatre Critics Association and leaders from theaters across the country gathered in Milwaukee for an Intersections Summit on diversity in theatre. Watching Lydia R. Diamond’s provocative Smart People at Writers Theatre a week later, I was transported directly back into the middle of the conversations I’d taken part in during that summit, and they were no easier the second time around.
Liberal white people often get utterly discombobulated when they find themselves in a discussion of race. (I know I do: I’m very nervous even writing this.) If I were to guess—I’m not a sociologist—I’d say it’s likely because we are extremely aware of the history of white people and race in this country, the fact that no one likes to think of themselves as racist, and the fact that, no matter how much we tell ourselves that we are “woke,” there is still something inside that reacts differently to people of color. Scientific studies suggest that these reactions come from the amygdala, our troglodyte brain, which reacts without the aid of our higher cognitive abilities. The amygdala is responsible for automatic functions and reactions that do not need to be processed, like fear. White people often get uncomfortable talking about race because we fear that we do have racist thoughts despite our better angels.
“Everyone’s a little bit racist,” goes a song in the musical Avenue Q. Harvard neuroscientist Brian White (Erik Hellman playing the perfectly named character), in Smart People, has dedicated his life to proving that there is, in fact, a biological imperative to this construct. His studies, he says, prove beyond a scientific doubt that, due to cultural imperatives, white people are hard-wired to be racist, and that is one of the huge concepts under Diamond’s microscope in this play in which four very “smart people” (Brian and three people of color) live their lives and deal with the systemic racial biases of modern America.
The play takes place from 2007-2009, following the first Obama campaign for President from its early stages to his inauguration, a moment in recent history when it seemed that racial harmony might finally be achieved. (We all know where that thought ended up.) Besides Brian, Diamond introduces us to Ginny Wang (Deanna Myers), an Asian American (proudly Chinese-Japanese) psychologist whose studies stem from her treatment of young Chinese women; Valerie Johnston (Kayla Carter), a post-MFA actress trying to make it in the harsh world of theatre and cleaning houses on the side; and Jackson Moore (Julian Parker), a black surgeon who butts heads with superiors at his hospital while also running a clinic for the underprivileged. Through a series of unlikely revelations, we find that these people are all connected (“Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” comes up) and watch as their interactions and individual lives explore the racial culture we all live in.
None of these people is particularly likable. Brian and Ginny are both utterly arrogant about their research and beliefs. Ginny, tightly wound and hyper-controlled, sees herself as right all the time and treats people with a kind of casual disdain. Scenes involving shopping show her interacting with several different clerks and flashing her superior attitude. These scenes, though, also are designed by Diamond to highlight the racial divide: a person of color is shopping, so it doesn’t matter that she is clearly well to do and shopping high-end department stores: one has “lost” her order and another is happy that she’s paying cash. Brian, more of a “heart on the sleeve” kind of guy, is no less pompous about his studies. He cannot figure out why Harvard would fund him and treat him like a godsend for years only to disavow him when his study finally comes to fruition. Imperiously asserting to everyone what he has discovered (he writes articles calling Harvard racist and even calls his dean a racist), White apparently can’t see that his findings might not be welcome to a generally white university administration.
As to the others, Jackson is brilliant but cocky. He believes himself to be the best young surgical resident on his hospital’s staff and cannot fathom why they would believe a surgeon of lesser talent’s version of a recent error instead of him…despite the fact that the other doctor is his superior. In two conversations with people he has never met before (Ginny and Valerie), he reveals himself to be a man who doesn’t have the patience to listen well, and his date with the beautiful young actress falls flat because both of them are so judgmental. Valerie, the most likable of the four, believes that no one can act better than she does and that she has all of the answers. Her first scene finds her arguing with a tone-deaf director over his interpretation of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. She’s right, but she simply can’t give in despite her youth and inexperience. We feel some sympathy for her in this scene and another in which she is judged in an audition by her race, as well as a ridiculous telephone interview about the “brave casting” of the play (“None of the other actors are actually Roman”). The failed date, however, is due at least as much to her own focus on racial and feminist agendas as it is to Jackson’s egotism.
The four actors here are brilliant. All four of them approach their characters as if they are the most important people in the world and the only ones who are “right,” and Diamond’s script (which gives each of them multiple solo moments) helps to highlight the point. Myers is ice cold much of the time, befitting a character who doesn’t “do girlfriend” well and in fact never has relationships. Hellman displays his character’s intellectual antagonism perfectly; you see where he’s coming from but can’t help feeling that he is screwing it up royally. Parker’s Jackson is petulant, combative, and quick to misunderstand. He seems almost always primed for an argument, and he and Hellman together are sparks waiting to catch. Carter’s Johnston is less abrupt but just as quick to judge. The actress is innately likable and the contrast to her character creates some wonderful moments when we just are not sure how to react to her.
Diamond’s themes are brought to light by some inventive direction from Hallie Gordon, who wrings every ounce of contention from her four characters while creating a smooth, frictionless flow between scenes on a simple, flexible Collette Pollard set dominated by Deirdre Searcy’s projections and Kathy A. Perkins’ multicolored lines of light. Richard Woodbury’s original music is perfect for scene changes and Izumi Inaba’s costumes are impeccable.
Smart People is not designed to be an easy play to digest any more than the issues we covered in that summit were meant to be simple to implement. Race continues to be a flashpoint in American society (and arguably is getting worse in the era of Trump). We need our culture to point a finger and get us thinking about these things if we have any possibility of getting past them. Smart People does just that. It is a challenging, at times outrageous play, but it is a perfect play for our time.
Smart People is now playing at Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Ct in Glencoe, until June 10. Performance times vary; check the website . Tickets are available from Writers Theatre. Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com.