Challenging ways of thinking about race in ‘Smart People’
Six years into the age of Obama, we’ve had to absorb some unpleasant reminders about the persistence of bigotry, courtesy of the three stooges of 2014: Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, and Robert Copeland, the Wolfeboro, N.H., police commissioner who used a racist slur to describe the first African-American president.
The trio quickly received the opprobrium they deserved, and all right-thinking people congratulated themselves on a job well done. But here comes a challenge to complacency in the form of “Smart People,’’ a splendid new play about race by Lydia R. Diamond that sifts through the implications of research suggesting that prejudice might be innate, biological, part of the way human brains are wired.
When a playwright launches a project intent on exploring a thesis, the pitfalls are obvious: that she will sacrifice character for archetypes and/or trade narrative momentum for a schematic parade of talking points. Diamond doesn’t so much sidestep those dangers as exuberantly hurtle past them in “Smart People,’’ a comedy-drama now receiving its world premiere at Huntington Theatre Company under the characteristically deft direction of Peter DuBois.
Writing with wit, verve, a shrewd eye for portraiture and an equally shrewd ear for the tells and giveaways of invidious racial assumptions, Diamond has created a quartet of complex, flawed, intriguing, and, yes, smart people who register as much more than delivery systems for polemical freight.
This diverse and cerebral foursome (all have Harvard connections) interact romantically and professionally from 2007 to 2009 in Cambridge. “Smart People’’ unfolds in a series of short scenes; the transitions are smooth on Alexander Dodge’s modular set. As the characters connect and clash and struggle to figure out the precise contours of their relationships to one another — and where race figures into that — the play holds up a mirror to the choppy, one-step-forward-one-step-back workings of an increasingly multicultural society.
The Huntington cast is just superb. Miranda Craigwell portrays Valerie Johnston, an African-American actress trying to get her career in gear but confronting racial stereotyping whenever she auditions for parts. Whether anger or drollery is called for, Craigwell is wonderfully expressive in “Smart People’’; this is her best work since Company One’s production of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “In the Red and Brown Water’’ three years ago.
Delivering equally multifaceted performances are Eunice Wong as Ginny Yang, a Chinese-Japanese-American professor of psychology at Harvard who studies race and identity among Asian-American women but has some thorny identity and control issues of her own, manifested in compulsive shopping (Ginny makes some pointed remarks about Asian-Americans being left out of the dialogue on race); McKinley Belcher III as Jackson Moore, an African-American surgical intern and graduate of Harvard Medical School, who is growing increasingly frustrated as his medical decisions get second-guessed by white colleagues; and Roderick Hill as Brian White, a white neuropsychiatrist and Harvard professor who has been studying neurological responses to images of nonwhites and has concluded that whites have “[a] predisposition to hate. We are programmed to distrust and fear those with more melanin.’’ Brian talks the talk, but might he fall back on the expectations of white privilege himself when push comes to shove?
Giving the white guy such an obvious surname is a curious touch in so skillfully constructed a play, though it does lead to a very funny mistaken-identity exchange between Brian and Ginny. Another puzzler: At one point Brian refers to “this work I’ve been doing for decades,’’ even though the script identifies him as being only 36, and Hill looks even younger than that.
You can’t say Diamond steers entirely clear of didacticism in “Smart People,’’ but she consistently leavens her message with humor, drawing laughs even as she firmly pushes back against the notion that we’re living in a “post-racial society.’’ Indeed, Diamond shows even more dexterity here when it comes to fusing drama and comedy than she did with her very fine “Stick Fly.’’ Performed at the Huntington four years ago before transferring to Broadway, “Stick Fly’’ did not get as long a New York run as it deserved, closing after fewer than 100 regular performances because of modest ticket sales.
It stands to reason that Diamond would want another crack at Broadway, and her new play feels like a potential ticket back. At a minimum, it would elevate Broadway’s collective IQ and kick-start some intricate conversations on race — something, I’ll wager, that “Smart People’’ will quickly begin to do for Boston.