In “Smart People,” Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist

T. Charles Erickson PhotoJackson (Sullivan Jones) is a rising surgeon dissatisfied with how he’s treated at work. He knows he’s one of the best on the staff but, as an African-American, he faces demeaning treatment from white superiors who want to keep him down. He’s a good guy though, and operates a clinic on the side for the uninsured.

Brian (Peter O’Connor) is a celebrated sociologist and statistician determined to prove that racism is “hard-wired” in human brains; it’s biological, not sociological, he claims. If true, his findings would sweep aside one of the dearest assumptions of liberal progressives that racial bias is learned and thus can be unlearned. A white man, he is meeting increasing resistance from the authorities in his field. Oh, and his students, not without reason, think he’s an arrogant prick.

Ginny (Ka-Ling Cheung) is a psychologist and researcher who “identifies strongly” as Asian-American, which, we assume, means she doesn’t want to be seen either as white or as an immigrant.

Valerie (Tiffany Nichole Greene) is an African-American actress recently graduated from an MFA program, suffering the indignity of auditions. First it’s for the minor role of Portia in Julius Caesar. Then for a stereotyped “mamie” role in some piece of drivel. She can get prickly whenever someone — even another African-American like Jackson — makes remarks she deems racist.

Racial bias affects us all. That’s the premise of Lydia R. Diamond’s Smart People, — directed by Desdemona Chiang and running at the Long Wharf Theatre through April 9. Though smart and gifted, the play’s four characters fight against the racial assumptions of others, professionally and personally. There are many sharp jabs at received ideas about race — as something we see in others but not ourselves, or as something we claim as if a special club. The laughs come from a willingness to find humor in our own biases, and in the bad behavior of others.

Smart People presents its four professionals in Cambridge, Ma., in the period leading up to Barack Obama’s inauguration, a setting that should remind us of the “post-racial America” supposedly ushered in by Obama’s success. We meet them all doing their thing before we see them interact. The initial overlapping of their individual scenes and an annoying background sound effect merge to create a sense of escalating anxiety. They all seem trapped in the difficult situation of proving themselves to be the smartest or best in the room.

What else Smart People means to say is unclear. Other characters make a few jokes or snide remarks about Asian stereotypes, for instance, and Ginny seems all too ready to play into them, whether by being brittle and brainy or submissive-sexy, for effect. Valerie is in some ways the most oppressed and the most accessible, making her sympathetic.

Jackson and Brian, we learn eventually, play basketball together. Valerie meets Jackson when she comes to his clinic with a wound received from a piece of a set, and he gives her his number. Ginny meets Jackson when she comes to his clinic looking for subjects for a study, and is rebuffed. Valerie meets Brian when she takes up clerical work for him after his controversial findings cause him to lose graduate assistants. Ginny, at the clinic again, mistakes Valerie for a receptionist in an implausible scene. Brian and Ginny meet when they arrive early for a faculty committee on diversity. Someone overtly mentions the famous “six degrees of separation” idea, but that doesn’t make the encounters less contrived. Eventually, of course, they all come together at a dinner party to sort out their antagonisms. Or not.

For the most part, the dialogue-driven short scenes between two characters keep things moving, aided by Patrick Lynch’s very malleable set to give us just enough setting for each of the many scene shifts. The overlaps and cross-cuts create a fascinating sense of montage, as though we’re leafing through a stack of case studies and focusing on the relevant evidence. Diamond is clever at scripting situations that cause minimal but irksome frictions. Her dialogue shows a flair for the kind of non sequitur that jabs more sharply than normal conversation does. When it works, we get a jolt from the character’s point of view. When it doesn’t, we feel we’re being led somewhere at the characters’ expense. The fact that none of the characters are very likable — smart seems to equate with insufferable — helps us keep them and their minor skirmishes at a distance. Even their erotic moments have a kind of petri dish feel.

The through-line in Smart People is Brian’s research, which we get to hear a lot about, as he makes enlightened white person noises about how he came to his conclusion that all whites are racist. In doing so, he manages to antagonize even his non-white friends. In the deep background of the play is the assumption that our culture runs on racial essentialism, and no one in the play does much to deny it or disabuse each other of that view. What they seem bent on is minor tweaks to make room for their own individuality. Brian is the worst offender, and O’Connor does a good job with the harried speak of the self-aware racist. Cheung’s Ginny and Jones’s Jackson become more likable as the play goes on, in part because they land a few jabs. Greene’s Valerie, as the non-science person, remains a bit out of her league, though getting a part in Ibsen and campaigning for the winning president vindicate her efforts.

Smart People is a smart play trying to question certain obvious disparities about status in our culture. What the play portrays well is how people cope with the perceptions their race inspires in others, particularly in mixed-race situations. There is lots of brainy talk to suggest that the characters are masters in their fields. But the play is never quite smart enough to overcome the sense that its characters are emblems rather than people. We might be used to seeing people in plays that way, but when people in plays see each other that way, it’s time to question the conventions of the play.

Smart People runs at Long Wharf Theatre through April 9. Click here for tickets and more information.

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