Racism – or more precisely the perception of race – has weighed heavily on Americans for centuries, with a profound resurgence since the election of Barack Obama. We’re all compelled at least occasionally to think about our own prejudices and those inflicted on us by everyone else. The exercise can be irritating, disturbing, baffling, or distressing for anyone.
But what’s it like for someone who thinks about race all the time? To embody racial stereotypes while battling against bigotry with every breath? To devote your career to dismantling the stereotypes that stand in the way of discovering your true self? To crave the love and friendship of people on the other side of racial and cultural divides while continually sabotaging meaningful connection because of your own biases and prejudices?
Welcome to the world of “Smart People,” a provocative and complex snapshot of four young, beautiful, accomplished professionals not just struggling to survive but aching to thrive in the vortex of self-conscious intellectualism that is the hallmark of Harvard University. Through the brilliant writing of Lydia R. Diamond (“Stick Fly,” “The Bluest Eye”) and the engrossing direction of Arena Deputy Artistic Director Seema Sueko, this play peels away layer upon layer of preconceptions that stymie even the people granted the golden key to success: a Harvard degree.
One might imagine that these four characters could become tiresome, and at first they threaten to be. But in the ensemble performance of the stellar actors who bring them to life, they grow increasingly endearing, sympathetic, and laugh-out-loud funny as the play hurtles toward an inconclusive end.
All four characters strenuously resist and confront racial stereotypes – and strive to “be heard by the dominant culture” – so they can fully express who they are. Two of them even dedicate themselves to helping others break free of racism’s confines. Yet time and again they become the very stereotypes they yearn to dispel.
Gregory Perri portrays Brian White, a neurobiologist committed to battling white supremacy by tracking brain data. “I want to prove that all whites are racist,” he says, convinced that this proof is the only way to motivate legal and social change. “We must understand our brains, accept our physiology, and accept the social reality that we so virulently deny.”
Yet, while devoting his career to uncovering the neurological basis for white privilege, Brian chafes when his data-based research begins falling from favor in the highest echelon of white academia that he inhabits. It’s hard to believe that this potentially insufferable character can also be a hoot, but in his baffled exasperation, Perri most certainly is.
Like Brian, Professor Ginny Yang focuses her research on racial prejudice, but instead of changing the white “dominant culture” she aims to help third-generation Asian-Americans navigate the persistent stereotype of the “sexually promiscuous and scholastically dexterous” Asian woman. Ironically, Ginny personifies but defies the stereotype with statements like: “I don’t date. I just sleep around. But because I’m a slut. Not because I’m Asian.”
And like her patients, Ginny suffers the low self-esteem that this Asian caricature engenders, nursing her depression with an addiction to shopping. Sue Jin Song’s multifaceted portrayal of Ginny leaves no doubt why she took this year’s Best of Fringe Award for her one-woman show, “Children of Medea.”
Meanwhile, Brian’s best (and only) friend is the budding surgeon Jackson Moore, struggling under the yoke of would-be medical mentors who keep casting him as the “angry black man,” even as he repeatedly fuels the stereotype with eruptions of anger and profanity directed at the hospital management. Jaysen Wright brings to this role the same tempered machismo, dry wit, and glints of vulnerability that he showed to tremendous effect in “Choir Boy” at Studio Theatre two years ago.
The final piece of this quartet is budding black actress Valerie Johnston, portrayed by the delightful Lorene Chesley, who thrusts herself into a murky theatrical landscape where “color-blind” and “color-conscious” casting continually throw her off balance. It doesn’t help that Valerie was weaned on Shakespeare and, as a child, repeatedly beat up by her cousins’ friends who called her “saddity” (arrogant, uppity, snobbish; and yes, I had to look it up). She careens between portraying Portia in “Julius Caesar” and cleaning houses to pay the rent, prompting Jackson to ask: “You volunteer for Obama is your whole black card?”
These people exist in boxes of both society’s and their own making, evoked in the backdrop of Misha Kachman’s clever set framed by cubes along the back wall. Only when the characters move into spaces beyond the wall – suggesting a hospital, a bedroom, or a basketball court – do we begin to see their many dimensions. Costume designer Dede M. Ayite skillfully alludes to this same dichotomy, outfitting the actors in clothing that signifies who their characters want to be – the doctor, the professor, the actress – as well as who they really are.
It takes energy just to comprehend the characters’ psyches and even more to unravel the sources and implications of their interactions. Yet somehow, under Sueko’s direction, this cast vividly defines each individual, and Diamond’s script deftly interweaves their lives. Without seeming contrived, in this narrative Brian plays basketball with Jackson, Jackson serves as Valerie’s emergency room doctor, Valerie becomes Brian’s study subject and assistant, and Ginny dates Brian while suffering Jackson’s rebuff when she attempts to volunteer at his clinic.
Laden with baggage and pummeled by their respective razor-sharp wits, the characters ricochet around offense, defense, attraction, submission, and retreat … until inevitably all four come together in an explosively hilarious scene. It would be exhausting if it weren’t so wickedly funny, and full of the stuff that makes smart people think.
“Smart People” is at Arena Stage’s Mead Center for American Theatre through May 21.
Barbara Wells is a writer and editor for Reingold, a social marketing communications firm. She and her husband live on Capitol Hill.