Review: 'Smart People' at Long Wharf Theater

Tara Kennedy 

OnStage Connecticut Critic / Connecticut Critics Circle

Last year, playwright Lydia R. Diamond said in an interview with Beth Stevens of that her latest work, “Smart People,” was born out of Barack Obama’s election. “[He] won the election and it changed the way we talk and think about race. It made me up my game. It also changed everything about what this play wanted to be… to look at it with a more open mind and also up the stakes in an interesting way.”

Up the stakes, indeed. As the title suggests, these are definitely smart people: they are well-educated and thoughtful, yet still limited in their understanding of culture, gender, and race (as, frankly, most of us are). They are going through their lives, seemingly together on the outside, yet struggling with identity, against a backdrop that most people don’t want to touch with a ten-foot pole: racial identity in America. Why is race so difficult to talk about in this country? I believe the opening scene demonstrates why: we see all four characters in snippets of their lives, which eventually transitions into a cacophony of words. Everyone is speaking at once, and no one is listening to one another. We all have opinions, but we have a hard time hearing others.

The actors in this play are tremendous, taking their roles to their absolute limits with pure honesty. Ginny (Ka-Ling Cheung) – an Asian-American tenured psychology professor – is a ball-breaking, ambitious woman who counsels other Asian women to be more assertive in a society that expects them to be passive. 

Brian (Peter O'Connor) – a successful yet controversial Caucasian professor who has yet to make tenure – is doing research to determine if there is scientific evidence that white people are inherently racist due to physiological reasons. He sees what he sees as the empirical evidence that whites are inherently racist, yet this somehow does not include him because he is “more evolved” than other whites.

Valerie (Tiffany Nichole Greene) – an African-American, Harvard-educated actor – who is mystified by the industry wanting to bring her race to the forefront: they question why she is playing Portia in “Julius Caesar,” calling it a “brave choice,” and give her stereotypical black female characters to read rather than the “whiter” parts she came in to audition for. There is nothing more painful – or hilarious – to watch than Valerie’s reading of that part.

Jackson (Sullivan Jones) – an African-American surgeon in his residency at a Boston-based hospital – rails against a system that doesn’t want him to succeed because of his race. He strives to be perfect by operating a free clinic and by helping his struggling brother: to give back to his community.

What happens when these characters all interact with one another? That, my friends, is the play, and what happens is witty, uncomfortable, and important. I say important because it is works like “Smart People” that demonstrate and explore these issues without anyone getting ostracized or knocked down.  I feel like these four people are in a boxing ring, lunging forward only to get knocked down, and having to get back up again.

Sound depressing? It’s not. That’s what makes this play a triumph. It is – to use my husband’s phrase – diabolically funny. Diamond’s writing is wildly humorous, despite its intense subject matter. Huge kudos to making light – and shining a light – on human beings trying to operate in a world that is at once impossible and complicit in its dealings with race.

My only issue with this production was the set. While I appreciated the clean lines and versatility of Patrick Lynch’s set design, the open wings of the stage made for distracting entrances; I found my eyes falling on actors entering from either side of the stage when I wanted to concentrate on what was happening center stage.  But this minor complaint hardly takes away from this well-directed, strong production of this brilliantly-written play. I hope that this play becomes a classroom staple because, God knows, we need to find constructive ways to talk about race in this country because, as Diamond writes so succinctly, “Race in America is a mind fuck.”

Photo: Peter O'Connor and Ka-Ling Cheung in "Smart People" at Long Wharf Stage II. (T. Charles Erickson)