By Karen Isaacs
Lydia R. Diamond’s play “Smart People” now at Long Wharf Theater through April 9 is a two hour discussion or race and gender: it is sometimes funny, sometimes thought-provoking and sometime pedantic.
How you will react to the play will depend on how insightful you feel the points made are.
It is set in Cambridge, between 2007-2009 which coincides with the candidacy and election of Barack Obama and the run of Hillary Clinton for the nomination.
A little quibble, early in the play a character refers to “he” and who will vote for “him”. If you haven’t read the program notes, you may think it is referring to our current President.
We meet four people — all well-educated, three of them and possibly the fourth, have a connection to Harvard. We have Brian White (yes, he is Caucasian), who is neuroscientist. He is aiming for tenure but his research is ruffling feathers exacerbated by his outspokenness in the media. His research is attempting to prove that a racism is inherent in the brains of people.
Ginny Yang is a brilliant psychologist who received tenure at an amazingly young age. Part Chinese and part Japanese, her research and clinical practice revolve around the problems of Asian-American women in the U.S.
We also meet two African-Americans. Valerie Johnston is an aspiring actress with an MFA. Jackson Moore is a physician who is in a neurosurgery residency program.
We meet each of these characters in brief scenes that establish them. We see White teaching a freshman level course which he views as “punishment.” He feels most of the students are stupid. We see Yang in a therapy session with a Chinese woman who keeps reverting to Chinese.
Moore is responding to being questioned by an older physician about a toe amputation he did; he responds angrily. And Johnston is in rehearsal of “Julius Caesar” and finding the director overly controlling.
Soon White and Yang are interacting and Moore and Johnston are interacting. At times it takes on the feeling of a romantic comedy. Johnston and White also interact.
We learn how each views the world through the prism of their race, gender and experiences. We see Yang encountering sales clerks who she views as not taking her serious as a customer. Even when Johnston first meets Moore (she is in the ER for a cut on her forehead that requires stitches), she asks if she will merit seeing a doctor.
What is most interesting about the characters is that they often conform to the stereotypes: Moore gets angry and often seems to lose control; it is clear that he sees a racial undertone to the criticism he receives. Johnston decides to clean houses to pay her rent while waiting for her acting break. Yang is an overachiever who admits she doesn’t “do nurturing” well, and White, despite his views and research on racism, blunders around often inadvertently sounding very racist or condescending.
While very well acted, the play does not really shed any new ideas to the discussion. Even Yang’s comment during a dinner party where White and Johnston and Moore are discussing race is obvious. She draws attention to the fact that while those three are arguing/discussing they are ignoring not only her as an Asian -American but also the realities of other minorities in the US — Native Americans, Latinos and other.
It is true that in America, most discussions about race are centered on the two.
My concern is that people will leave this play feeling that they have had a meaningful discussion of these issues. The issue of what is called “implicit bias” based on subtle cognitive processes below the conscious level is an interesting field of discovery; though it does seem to offer an “easy answer” to bias – we can’t do much about it because it is inborn and unconscious.
The cast four are excellent and work well together. Ka-Ling Cheung is Ginny Yang whose Chinese patient views as “white”. Tiffany Nichole Greene is Valerie Johnson while Sullivan Jones gives us the combative Jackson Moore and Peter O’Connor is the sometimes fumbling Brian White. Director Desdemona Chiang has kept the scene shifts, storylines and combinations of characters moving cinemagraphically.
You will either the find this play, disturbing and thought provoking, or you may, like me, view it as pretending to be more meaningful than it actually is.
Smart People is at Long Wharf Theater, 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven, through April 9. For tickets visit Long Wharf or call 800-782-8497.