Theater Review: “Smart People” — A Sharp Satire of a “Post-Racial” World

Lydia R. Diamond’s Smart People is an amusing, at times moving, takedown of our “post-racial” world, and it is receiving a snappy, well-acted production via the Huntington Theatre Company.

Smart People, by Lydia R. Diamond. Directed by Peter DuBois. Staged by the Huntington Theatre Company at the Wimberly Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, Boston, MA, through July 9.

Eunice Wong and Roderick Hill in the Huntington Theatre Company production of  "Smart People. " Photo: T. Charles Erickson

Eunice Wong and Roderick Hill in the Huntington Theatre Company production of “Smart People. ” Photo: T. Charles Erickson

By Bill Marx

Regarding the state of race relations in America, the election of Barak Obama as our first African-American president proved “mission accomplished” to some on the right and the lazy left. It isn’t only the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court who is convinced we have entered into a “post-racial” society. Each semester a number of my students at Boston University assure me, with sincere enthusiasm, that they are colorblind – they are part of a generation freed of prejudice. Some pupils become a bit impatient when even discussing the issue – it was so yesterday. Which is, of course, right where the conservatives want to take us. And it is also where some liberals would like to be as well–it makes life so much easier.

Recent racist remarks from Nevada cattle rancher Cliven Bundy and California billionaire Donald Sterling make current claims about the country’s “post-racial” consensus look laughable. Alas, there’s nobody as outrageous as Sterling in Lydia Diamond’s amusing (at times moving) takedown of the “post-racial” world in her new comedy-drama Smart People, which is receiving a snappy, well-acted production via the Huntington Theatre Company. To her credit, the playwright didn’t want to deal with easy-to-nail, over-the-top prejudice, but the subtler, more self-conscious bedevilments about race experienced by a quartet of intelligent, neurotic, but relatively low-level types. Still, given the considerable influence Sterling wielded, I pray that a nervy satirist takes on his brand of American monstrousness, which is cultivated through legal corner-cutting, unbridled greed, and institutional racism. It is fine to look from the bottom up – but the Elizabethans, Bernard Shaw, and Ibsen taught us that the view from the top down makes for revelatory social comedy as well.

Ibsen is mentioned in Smart People by way of Valerie Johnston, an African-American actress who is attempting to launch a career in the theater while combatting racial stereotyping. She lands a role in a production of Enemy of the People, and its anti-hero might be Diamond’s inspiration for white neuropsychiatrist and Harvard professor Brian White, who has scientific proof that whites are fated to be prejudiced again non-whites – it is hard-wired into the brain. (Valerie meets Brian via a job doing lab research.) The more energy Brian expends trying to sound the discomforting alarm, the more kick-back he receives, leading to serious road blocks in his career. Of course, like Ibsen’s figure, he has his debilitating hang-ups, ranging from defensive egotism to a yen for white privilege. Brian romances Ginny Yang, a tenured professor of psychology at Harvard who is not facing up to severe problems regarding commitment and shopping, and he is friends with African-American intern Jackson Moore, who has anger management issues. Valerie has an on-again, off-again relationship with Jackson, while Brian and Ginny start up a challenging relationship as well. Hot buttons are pushed and re-pushed, but generally with aplomb.

McKinley Belcher III and Miranda Craigwell in the Huntington Theatre Company production of Lydia R. Diamond's "Smart People." Photo: T. Charles Erickson

McKinley Belcher III and Miranda Craigwell in the Huntington Theatre Company production of Lydia R. Diamond’s “Smart People.” Photo: T. Charles Erickson

The first half of Smart People spends a bit too much time ladling out exposition and clarifying the issues; characters are harranging the audience, as if Diamond is impatient to get a rise out of us. The stronger second act finally gets down to poking under the characters’ thin skins, particularly by interlacing race with issues of domination and submission, sexual as well as academic. It all comes down to the old American appetites for power and control moving into fluid, uncharted territory — assumed understandings about race, sex, political correctness, and psychology sometimes overlap and sometimes clash. Diamond takes a perceptive look at the missteps of those who think they have a map. As in Stick Fly, the dramatist is adept at creating sympathetic characters whose romantic talk is gritty and charming. At times there is too much of a sit-com Friends feel, with the Huntington production giving us four beautiful people (as if smart wasn’t enough) rubbing up again each other for the sake of pleasure and one-upsmanship. And by staying within a liberal conclave, Diamond can only be so provocative. But the talented cast (McKinley Belcher III, Miranda Craigwell, Roderick Hill, and Eunice Wong) is nimble enough to deliver on the script’s ample humor as well as handle its occasional dips into pathos.

It is heartening to see a play from one of our regional theaters grapple with thorny contemporary realities (Smart People is set in 2007-2009) rather than wallow in nostalgic fantasy. Lately, the Huntington has drifted away from the world of today (i.e. Stephen Belber’s The Power of Duff, A.R. Gurney’s The Cocktail Hour), while the American Repertory Theater is content to do lucrative backflips in Circus Cloud Cuckoo Land. I hope the Huntington is going to stay on the fresh side of the millennium, though I have my fears. One of the theater’s upcoming productions next season is a stage version of the ’60s film warhorse Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Hollywood’s ultra-safe take on race. The urge to go back to the good old days is strong because it is reassuring, but serious theaters should resist it — Smart People proves how much fun and provocation there is in looking at the present and thinking about future.

Bill Marx is the Editor-in-Chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.

1 Comment

  1. Bill Marx on June 11, 2014 at 8:00 am

    I received a comment that The Power of Duff takes place in the present, so let me clarify the last paragraph. A play can be set today but not deal with contemporary realities — I would put Duff in that category. My overall point at the end of the piece is that plays like Smart People should be encouraged, and that its focus on contemporary issues makes it difficult to understand why companies retreat back to older and safer approaches, such as the upcoming Huntington staging of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and 1986’s The Colored Museum, for that matter. Aren’t there any good new plays about race worth staging? Must name recognition guide programming?

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