Presented by the Huntington Theatre
Written by Lydia R. Diamond
Directed by Peter DuBois
Review by Craig Idlebrook
(Boston) How we view race defines us, but we often don’t like to examine how we view race, at least not directly. To write well about race in America requires both a deep understanding of society and a deeper self-examination of one’s own feelings to sort out fact from feeling, and to know when to use both to create an artistic vision. Successful attempts to write well in fiction about this dicey subject are rare; most either skitter across the surface or descend into lecture.
This makes the Huntington Theatre’s devastatingly funny production of Smart People all the more impressive. Playwright Lydia R. Diamond has endowed us with a script for the ages, one full of vibrantly funny and poignant discussions of our own inner discomfort with how we interact with others when it comes to skin pigment. Director Peter Dubois steers a stellar cast into the sweet spot of the script to ensure this production is entertaining as well as enriching.
The play focuses on the attempts of Harvard professor Brian White (Roderick Hill) to identify physiological evidence of inherent racism in the brainwaves of white people. In his own cocky and detached way, White is raging against the suffocating niceties of an ivy league school that doesn’t want to address race problems directly. He begins a relationship with Ginny Yang (Eunice Wong), a brilliant and successful psychologist who is trying to empower Asian-American women in her work. White, who is caucasian, conveniently has a “my best friend is black” kind of friend in Jackson Moore (McKinley Belcher III), a hotheaded-but-well-meaning physician who can’t make it through residency. Both men cross paths with Valerie Johnston (Miranda Craigwell), an African-American ivy league grad and actress who understands, and perhaps enjoys too much, the racial irony of making ends meet by cleaning houses.
The action unfolds as each character grapples with how their feelings on race tinge their professional and personal lives, and their carefully constructed walls begin to crumble. The ambitious set design strikingly underscores how these four souls come together or are kept apart without upstaging the action. While each actor brings something special to the table, Wong stands out as best encapsulating the seesaw uncertainty between power and powerlessness with Yang, a sexually proficient overachiever who helps others question their racial baggage partly so she won’t have to examine her own scars. In one devastating scene with White, she gains the upper hand by reverting to an inherently powerless stereotype of an Asian woman. It is a side of Yang we instantly believe was always there because Wong has created so many nuanced layers in her character.
At times heartbreaking, at times breezily funny, this production never allows the audience to wallow in its own confusion, or to forget that this is a play about people. While Diamond does excellent work thoughtfully examining the questions no one likes to discuss, her finest moments as a playwright come in her ability to flesh out these four disparate characters as individuals, while still never losing sight that they are in some ways only stand-ins for a parable. Backstory is kept to the utmost minimum, making these four appear as neophytes who have been plunked down into a strange system, and who, like us, are blindly feeling their way.