‘Smart People’ explores race with humor, heart
BOSTON — Sometimes smart, well-educated, well-spoken people can get tripped up when it comes to issues of race and class.
And big controversial ideas can drive wedges between people — even as current events seem to be bringing them together.
And if the play is called “Smart People,” then the writing must be equally smart, and playwright Lydia Diamond delivers in the Huntington Theatre Company’s world premiere production at the Calderwood Pavilion of the Boston Center for the Arts.
Diamond has found an artistic home and partnership with the Huntington and artistic director Peter DuBois, who directs here.
Her “Smart People” explores whether our attitudes toward race may be hard-wired into us and genetic in nature.
It’s set from 2007-2009 against the backdrop of Barack Obama’s historic run for the presidency and examines the intersecting lives of four Harvard intellectuals: Brian White (Roderick Hill) — Diamond in this one case can’t resist picking the low-hanging fruit — as a white neuro-psychiatrist studying the brain’s response to race; his Chinese-Japanese American lover, Ginny Yang (Eunice Wong), a tenured Harvard professor of psychology who studies race and the stresses of life among low-income Asian-American women; Brian’s friend Jackson Moore (McKinley Belcher III), an outspoken African-American surgical intern on rotation in one of Harvard’s teaching hospitals; and Valerie Johnson (Mirana Craigwell), an African-American graduate of ART’s acting program.
At one point, all four characters will be onstage in different quadrants of Alexander Dodge‘s modular set, explaining themselves: Brian castigating students in his lecture class, which will later prove eventful; the sometimes thin-skinned Jackson vigorously — perhaps too vigorously — defending his surgical decision in the face of criticism; Valerie in an audition for a Shakespeare play in which she her attempts to improvise are rudely rebuffed; and Ginny explaining what her work is and what it means to her.
The characters are not only flawed, but have an edge to them which makes their exchanges that much more dramatic. As in “Stick Fly,” her 2010 work, the dialogue — and the exchanges — ring true.
Eventually, Brian’s work appears to show a conclusion that is both startling and unnerving: from data compiled from whites’ responses to images of nonwhites, he has concluded that whites have “[a] predisposition to hate.”
That will give Diamond permission to change the dynamics of the relationships yet again, eventually leading to resentment, including Ginny pointedly calling herself — and all Asian-Americans by extension — left out in the conversation about race.
DuBois steers the ship strongly in the direction Diamond wants to go, and the cast is pitch-perfect.
The Huntington’s usual formidable production values in this case include not only Dodge’s set but effective projections from Aaron Rhyne, whose work added greatly to “The Power of Duff.”
With its heavy emphasis on neuroscience, “Smart People” ran the risk of getting bogged down in the science but manages to strike a balance between science and how the science affects the relationships.
And when Diamond turns the heat up, she has a knack for infusing humor at exactly the right moment and bringing the heat back down. It sounds a lot easier than it really is.
Along the way, Diamond will have some fun with the stereotypes often associated with various ethnic groups: Jackson mocking the way some white intellectuals talk, the sexual prowess associated with another ethnicity mentioned, or having Ginny — in a nod to Amy Chua’s “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” — admit “I’m trying to be nurturing.”
“Smart People” is a satisfying, rock-solid follow-up to Diamond’s 2010 hit “Stick Fly.” She has managed to write a play that is meaningful, accessible and vastly entertaining.
The Huntington Theatre Company production of Lydia Diamond’s “Smart People.” Directed by Peter DuBois. Scenic design by Alexander Dodge; costume design by Junghyun Georgia Lee; lighting design by Paul Gallo; sound design by M.L. Dogg (projection design by Aaron Rhyne Production stage manager is Emily McMullen. Assistant stage manager is Kevin Schlagle. Through July 6 in the Calderwood Pavilion of the Boston Center for the Arts.