Race with its many insidious shades of bias is explored in the play Smart People, now at Long Wharf Theater in New Haven. Focusing on well educated, confident and mostly successful characters, the production of Lydia R. Diamond’s provocative play turns a keen eye on the role of racism not only in a public forum, but most personally among the elite and intelligentsia.
Focusing on four people with distinctly different backgrounds, Smart People shows how these brilliant people have developed their own attitudes and understanding of race, gender, and age. Their last names immediately suggest their ethnicity. Brian White and Ginny Yang are passionate about their work in academia. They have researched the effects of racism. Brian is so elitist that he has no time to really teach his average students. If they are not among the most brilliant, he has no use for them. He is a scientist who has dedicated his career to researching race and professes, “All whites are racists.” Ginny is well respected at the university. She doesn’t date, but when she does venture out with Brian, she discovers that they both have issues.
Valerie Johnston studied the arts and is a graduate of Harvard trying to make her mark as an actress. Still, when she auditions, she is invariably given stereotypical black roles to read. A bash on her head introduces her to Jackson Moore, a smart egotistical black surgeon. After hooking up, they realize they can never get over their own hang-ups regarding race and gender.
Essentially, these characters outsmart themselves. Placing more emphasis on their careers and intelligence than relationships, they are all judgmental to a fault. Peter O’Connor plays a cocky and brash Brian White, a neuro-psychiatrist who has no problem insulting students and faculty alike. Ka-Ling Cheung plays Ginny Yang with equal amounts of arrogance and elitism. So too, Sullivan Jones plays the surgeon as if he were a gift to humankind and a bonus to women. Jackson Moore is so into himself physically and mentally that he defines narcissism. One of the funniest scenes in the play is when Jackson sprays deodorant into air and then walks into it. He may not smell, but he is still a stinker.
Tiffany Nichole Greene plays the most likeable character in the play, Valerie Johnston. Still Greene makes sure that Valerie has a hefty touch of the snob with her references to her Harvard degrees. This is even evident when she calls home for a $300 loan from her parents.
As these very “smart” people learn the news of Obama’s election, waving flags, and crying tears of joy, it becomes apparent that race issues are still alive in America regardless of education and class and regardless of the country’s vote for an African American president.
As entertaining as this production is, thanks to director Desdemona Chiang’s fast-paced direction, there is something terribly contrived about the whole play. It’s as if the characters are symbols rather than people. With monologues aplenty and erudite discourse, one comes away as if leaving a college lecture.
The Stage II production features Patrick Lynch’s set, which prominently displays the xrays of four heads. Mary Readinger’s costumes are character-appropriate and Stephen Strawbridge and Greg McGuire’s lighting and sound design respectively reflect the professionalism of Long Wharf’s creative design team.
The production plays through April 9. Box office: 203-787-4282.
Joanne Greco Rochman is an active member in The American Theatre Critics Association. She welcomes comments. Contact: [email protected]