By Yuko Kurahashi
Arena Stage is presenting the Washington DC premiere of Lydia R. Diamond’s Smart People at its Kreeger Theater. Directed by Seema Sueko, the show is filled with ricocheting words on race and gender stereotypes and their effects on different aspects of society in the United States. Set in the period from September 2007 to January 20, 2009, four “smart people” in Cambridge, Massachusetts unpack race and gender related issues in their professional and personal lives, politics, and economy in the times of optimism and hope.
The four characters are, in one way or the other, affiliated with Harvard University, an elite institution peopled by “smart people.” They are: Valerie Johnston, an aspiring and struggling African American actor (with an MFA degree in theatre); Brian White, a white professor of cognitive neuroscience; Ginny Yang, an Asian American (Chinese-Japanese American) professor of psychology, specializing in anxiety and depression among Asian American women, and counsellor; and Jackson Moore, an African American emergency room doctor who is in the process of getting a residency. During the course of the play, these characters encounter, begin relationships, and in some cases, experience their fallouts.
Hopping from one audition to the other, Valerie is desperate to survive in show business where roles for African Americans are extremely limited. Lorene Chesley portrays this frustrated but extremely energetic and positive actress with passion, tenacity, and honesty.
Valerie encounters Jackson, played by Jaysen Wright, in an emergency room when she gets hurt during a rehearsal. In addition to working at an emergency room at the University hospital, he also runs a low-cost clinic. Valerie and Jackson argue over gender stereotypes, sexism, materialism, and commitment to the public good.
Jackson is “the only and best friend” of Brian who is trying to finish his research on white people’s brains to prove they are genetically racists. Valerie who originally meets Brian as one of his text subjects becomes his lab assistant. Having stepped into the “territory” of Brian, Valerie incessantly points out the contradictions and absurdity of his research. Gregory Perri portrays the self-righteous liberal but “not so smart,” pre-tenured professor with humor, charm, and snarkiness. As soon as Brian meets Ginny at a diversity meeting at Harvard, he is drawn to someone he considers his equal.
Though sympathetic and caring about young Asian and Asian American women, Ginny (half-Chinese and half-Japanese) is trapped by her own prejudice against those who have not completely assimilated into mainstream culture. Sue Jin Song portrays this “dragon lady” with rich expressions. Song’s Ginny condescendingly asks one of her clients, a Japanese girl, to speak only English to her. Brian and Ginny become sexually involved and their relationship serves as a paradigm in which to explore racial and sexual stereotypes of Asian American women.
Scenic designer Misha Kachman provides these characters with their own space and battleground in a two-story structure. The structure consists of eight frames (four on the stage level and four on the second level), using grids on the backdrop and metal bars attached to the front corner of the structure. Each frame can be lifted to bring forward pieces of furniture to the downstage general performing area, which suggests a bedroom, an office, a dining room, a bar, and a lab. Lighting designer Xavier Pierce illuminates the backdrop of each frame in yellow, green, red, purple, orange, blue to suggest different locales, evoking their moods, and also suggesting racial and ethnic diversity in the United States. Projection designer Jared Mezzocchi projects a series of photos of representative races, from a white baby, a tattooed Japanese teenage girl to a black teenage girl. These photos reflect racial and gender stereotypes in the United States today.
While Act I focuses on the introduction of these smart people and how they deal with issues of race and gender in their private and professional lives, Act II illuminates the clash of their different views and beliefs. At a celebratory event—the victory dinner at Brian’s house after the 2008 Presidential election—Brian, who has recently been denied his tenure, expresses his resentment about losing his job, in spite of the fact that he is a white man. This absurd and racist comment triggers the end of his relationships with the others.
Smart People, however, does not end with this pathetic and hopeless note. The audience is taken into a powerful epilogue that evokes nostalgia about the short period of optimism around Obama’s first inauguration. On the backdrop, Mezzocchi shows video clips from the 2009 inauguration ceremony as Valerie, in a well-tailored shearing maroon colored coat, a matching hat, a long blond wig and sunglasses (costume designer Dede M. Ayite; wig designer, Anne Nesmith), stands in an upstage space, which indicates “the back of the standing only area” in the National Mall.
On her cell phone Valerie talks to Ginny who watches television in her apartment. These two women, who have become good friends, contrast to Brian and Jackson who have fallen out. Jackson talks to his mother on the phone, who is apparently moved and crying. Certainly many of the audience members in the Kreeger Theater might have the same emotion, being transported to a time when race relations seemed to be improving. They may ask themselves: where did the hope we felt that day go? Where is our country heading? Diamond’s episodic play challenges the audience to reflect on the path that the people of the United States have taken since that time.
Commissioned by McCarter Theatre (Princeton, NJ), Smart People was originally produced by the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston in 2014 under the direction of Peter DuBois. The New York premiere produced by Second Stage Theatre was directed by Kenny Leon in 2016 and featured Mahershala Ali. Later that year, Smart People was staged at True Colors Theatre Company in Atlanta, Georgia under the direction of David de Vries. Now we look forward to the Midwest premiere and the West Coast Premiere of this cathartic play.
April 14-May 21, 2017
Kreeger Theater, Arena Stage