There have been countless times when someone has told the joke about a rabbi, a priest and another random character walking into a bar. But, what about the one where an actress, a neuroscientist, a psychologist and a surgical resident sit down for dinner? The latter is the premise for Lydia Diamond’s play Smart People, directed with impeccable comedic timing by David de Vries, onstage at True Colors Theatre through August 7.
Smart People also ran for two weeks in February at New York City’s Second Stage Theatre under the direction of Kenny Leon, artistic director of True Colors, with a different cast.
In the play, Valerie (Danielle Deadwyler), a New York University classically trained actress, is injured on the set of Julius Caesar and taken to the hospital where she is treated by Jackson (Neal Ghant), an arrogant surgical resident who runs a nearby clinic. Meanwhile, shopaholic psychologist Ginny (Julee Cerda), who studies depression in Asian-American women, is assigned to a diversity committee at Harvard where she meets Brian (Joe Knezevich), a presumptuous white professor of neuroscience whose research intends to prove that all white people are biologically racist.
It just so happens that Jackson and Brian are basketball buddies; all of their worlds collide when Valerie and Jackson attempt to date just as Jenny and Brian become a couple and difficult, yet necessary, conversations about race, privilege, scientific research and academia unfold.
The script is dense and heavy-handed. The first 20 minutes are hard to sit through, and the show runs about 20 minutes too long. But a strong ensemble cast delivers an entertaining, thoughtful, laugh-filled night at the theater. Everything white people and people of color wish they could say to each other about their views on race is left on the stage. It is the type of show that forces people to look inward at their ideas of race and privilege and ask whether they are a part of the problem (and, hopefully, everyone answers yes).
Diamond has woven a web of witty one-liners from a definitely black, college-educated middle-class point of view, which is her lens. Leon directed her play Stick Fly on Broadway in 2011, which is about the secrets and lies revealed in a black family spending a holiday on Martha’s Vineyard. In both plays, Diamond gets at the two worlds that middle- and upper-class people of color often live in — the one of their work with pompous white colleagues and the other where they grapple with feelings of survivor’s remorse as they try to take care of their family members who don’t share the same fortune. The notion of being white enough and “other” enough is prevalent throughout her work.
Smart People takes place in September 2007 when Barack Obama is running for president. Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay’s Rubik’s Cube-like set serves as multiple locations through the use of projections, including a theater, college, hospital, therapist’s office and department store.
The department store scenes are some of the best. Cerda really nails them, and costume designer Shilla Benning does a great job of making sure that she looks the part. Many non-white people have had the experience of going into an upscale department store and being treated as if their money is not green. In one scene, Dr. Yang goes into Neiman Marcus to pick up a blouse that she asked them to hold under the name Ginny Yang only to find that the blouse is not there. Then she has to haggle with a salesperson to take her size off of the mannequin so that she can pay cash for it. Here, Diamond really uncovers the seemingly small, but significant, ways in which people of color, even those with money and education, are never treated equal to whites with the same means and education.
Diamond also deserves kudos for creating two female characters who are multifaceted, smart and worthy of being played. Asian-American and black women characters who are not poor or eroticized are hard to find in theater. Valerie might be the first brilliant, artistic, optimistic young black woman character to grace the stage since Beneatha in A Raisin in the Sun, and Deadwyler brings the character to life with marked sincerity and a great sense of humor. When a reporter asks Valerie whether she thinks that the director casting her as Portia in Julius Caesar is a bold choice, she responds, “None of the other actors are actually Roman,” challenging notions of color-blind casting.
Another very important element of the play is the commentary about medicine and scientific research as it relates to communities of color. Brian is a stereotype of the well-meaning white liberal. When Jackson and Ginny challenge him for testing the way white people’s brains react to images of black and brown people — but not testing the way black and brown people’s minds react to images of white people — he completely shuts down. He can’t understand why his research is not enough to satisfy their frustrations and they are hesitant to fully embrace him as an ally.
Another example is when Valerie first gets to the hospital in need of stitches on her forehead, the triage nurses and Jackson ask her who hit her. Here, the play does a nice job of challenging the stereotypes that white people bring to interactions with black people and the stereotypes black people have of each other.
Smart People is not a play for everyone, but it is definitely a play for now. Conversations about race, class and whose lives matter to whom are happening everywhere, and this play contextualizes the chatter. Granted, with white liberal theater audiences, Diamond is preaching to the choir, which is not as ideal as the recruitment of more choir members, but that does not diminish the work. And though the ending is abrupt, the journey to get there is worth the ride.