a theatre, film & pop culture review
Who: Lydia R. Diamond, playwright; Kenny Leon, director
Where: Second Stage Theatre
When: January 27-March 6, 2016
Why Watch: A Detroit native, Lydia R. Diamond is the award-winning African-American playwright of Stick Fly, which received its Broadway premiere in 2011. For Smart People, she once again teamed up with director Kenny Leon, the Tony-Award winning director best known for The Wiz Live! and his productions of August Wilson’s plays.
It’s 2008 in Boston on the eve of Obama’s election, and three hyper-intelligent and successful Harvard professionals and one slightly less accomplished twentysomething are wracked with identity issues: half-Japanese and half-Chinese Ginny (Anne Son), a psych prof at Harvard studying the racial identity among Asian-American women; Jackson (Mahershala Ali), an African-American surgical intern; Valerie (Tessa Thompson), an African-American recent grad with an MFA in acting; and Brian (Joshua Jackson), a white neuroscientist studying what he believes to be a hard-wired tendency toward racism.
Diamond dives right in, immediately identifying the racial stereotypes that plague each character: Ginny is supposedly “academically dexterous and sexually promiscuous;” Jackson, “hot-headed” and “volatile;” Valerie, after a run-in with a set piece at eye-level, is another black woman beaten by her black boyfriend. This all sounds heavy-handed, and at moments it is – especially when Brian’s overly stuffy (and academically messy) lectures are overindulged – but for the most part, Diamond explores a tough subject with a playful touch. The dialogue is sharp, very funny, and brutally honest and is adroitly delivered by a fantastic cast. Jackson (Dawson’s Creek, The Affair), in his off-Broadway debut, is as charming as you’d hope, as he endearingly blusters his way through a controversial topic and woos the difficult (i.e., extremely independent and his academic equal) Ginny. Son is the comedic treasure of the cast, relishing sharp line deliveries that slice clean through and enacting a sexual and racially-charged power play that could’ve gone oh-so-wrong in less-adept hands. Ali exudes confidence and intelligence, even as his character condescends to Thompson’s. As the one character in over her head – Valerie’s youth and non-academic background put her out her league here – the charismatic Thompson (known for the similarly themed Dear White People) holds her own.
Kenny Leon’s direction is slick, but not exactly smooth. On a blank stage, essential set pieces (bed, table, podium, locker room) slide on and off as necessary (design by Riccardo Hernandez), but leave a disconnected feel as actors follow them on and off. That these four individuals all know each other is a huge contrivance, but worse, they don’t exactly feel connected thanks to the vague staging. (Disappointingly, Ginny and Valerie barely speak to each other, while Brian and Jackson – and both couples – have long interactions.) Unfortunately, this lackluster direction highlights the play’s weaknesses (heavy one-sided exposition, too much academic jargon) rather than boosting its strengths (cutting wit, provocative characters). Smart People reveals scant beyond how little has changed since we nominated our first African-American president, but it smartly takes advantage of the topicality to explore race in a thoughtful, funny, and remarkably engaging way – and for that, Diamond should be applauded.
Bechdel Test: FAIL