Smart People, Lydia Diamond’s new play at the Huntington Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts, is a smart, funny, profound and highly polished play that I don’t hesitate to recommend. Diamond, whose award-winning play Stick Fly played at the Huntington four years ago before going on to Broadway, writes a lot about race and class, what’s in one’s heart and mind, and what one thinks should be there.
Her dialogue is always snappy, and, even when we’re laughing, we’re experiencing tension between what we may feel deep down and what we think we should be feeling. In Smart People, the theme is posed by the research of a highly intelligent white male Harvard professor investigating whether people’s brains are physically wired to be racist. If they are, then could the election of a black man to be president really signify the beginning of a “post-racial society. The play ends with election night 2008, leaving the four characters and their aspirations without resolving the complex and highly uncomfortable question.
The conversations about bias, stereotyping, denial, political correctness, also involve the professor’s relationship with a brilliant (but not “cuddly” enough) Japanese-Chinese-American Harvard psychologist, whose clinical work focuses on Asian women struggling to assert themselves; a talented black actress whose aspirations to Shakespeare are thwarted by directors wanting Aunt Jemima; and a rising black surgical intern who feels that being second-guessed by the white medical establishment is racially motivated. These four are the “smart people,” friends who examine race in a way that, as playwright Lydia Diamond notes in the program, deftly makes the audience both laugh and squirm.
The modular set is very clever, evoking for me the rectangles and squares of a subdued Mondrian painting. All four actors are superb: McKinley Belcher III as surgical intern Jackson Moore, Miranda Craigwell as actress Valerie Johnston, Roderick Hill as Brian White – yes, the white neuroscientist – and Eunice Wong as Ginny Yang. Playwright Lydia Diamond is really incisive and piercingly funny, and I can’t wait to see her next play.
I’d like to see her do an All the Way version of the Obama years and explore the naïvete of our “Audacity of Hope.” She might explore how, notwithstanding the enduring toxins of the Donald Stirlings of the world, criticism of the President’s leadership shortcomings can be free of racial undertones.
Meanwhile, Smart People is at the Huntington through July 6.
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