|Peter O'Connor, Sullivan Jones, Ka-Ling Cheung, Tiffany Nichole Greene|
Photo by T. Charles Erickson
Theories and research are not the stuff of great plays. That’s not to say that a playwright shouldn’t deal with theories and shouldn’t do research, but the material needs to be distilled and infused into characters rather than draped over their shoulders like a multi-colored serape, there for the world to see…and supposedly admire. Unfortunately, there are a lot of serapes in evidence currently at Long Wharf Theatre, which is presenting Lydia Diamond’s Smart People. When the four outstanding actors don said serapes didacticism seems to be a fifth character in the play; when they are allowed to shrug off the cloaks, especially in the second act, the stage lights up, sparks fly, and the audience gets to engage with people rather than ideas that walk and talk.
The premise of the play is, as noted, based on research, said research done by Susan T. Fiske on what has been termed “implicit bias.” What, pray tell, is implicit bias? Well, put simply, it suggests that our prejudices are in our DNA – it’s not so much cultural or generational as it is genetic. Hence, white people, no matter how liberal they believe themselves to be, how non-racist their actions may appear, are inherently prejudiced against those who are “different” (They can’t help but view black dolls as “ugly,” for example.) Put another way, scrape a liberal down to his or her core and you will find a racist.
It’s an interesting hypothesis, but it lies heavily on much of the evening. Diamond brings us four characters, under the direction of Desdemona Chiang, to illuminate and test the hypothesis: Ginny Yang (Ka-Ling Cheung), an Asian-American psychologist and something of a shopaholic and control freak; Valerie (Tiffany Nichole Greene), a young black actress who cleans houses to make the rent; Jackson Moore (Sullivan Jones), a surgical intern who also happens to be black and has some authority issues; and Brian White (Peter O’Connor), a Harvard professor, an angry middle-aged man who has done the research that can prove that whites are inherently prejudiced – they just can’t help themselves. His premise is bound to stir up the cultured folks, especially those deans and professors at Harvard who pride themselves on their liberal pedigrees.
It’s often difficult to distinguish when these characters represent stereotypes and when they actually become living, breathing “people,” for much of their dialogue, especially in the first act, carries the weight of the research Diamond relies on. Thus, one might often ask, are we listening to the character or the playwright as she checked off items on her note pad?
There are also some off-putting moments that might make the audience wonder what the playwright is trying to say. Two of these deal with sexual encounters – a Valerie and Jackson quick roll on the couch and a Ginny and Brian exercise in what…sexual exploitation?…ethnically driven sexual fantasies? It’s not that the depiction of the sex acts is off-putting -- both are actually quite demure -- it’s that they do not seem to have any relevance to the play’s themes or to the characters – especially the female characters. In other words, unless I’ve missed some inner meaning, the sex scenes seem gratuitous.
As is often the case with plays that deal with social issues via the interaction of couples, the second act features a meal during which all four characters are brought together to bring everything to a head. It’s at this meal that the serapes are dropped and the characters truly come to life. However, this is followed by a conclusion that is both enigmatic and an easy out, an imperator ex machina if you will. The play ends with – and this is not a spoiler – the inauguration of President Obama. Revealing this is not a spoiler because the final scene has little to do with the ideas being dealt with, unless it’s a statement that all of that white DNA has somehow passed through an alembic that purified it, alchemically converting the dross of implicit bias into the gold of…what?
Punctuated by many humorous lines and some very interesting vignettes (chief among them Valerie auditioning for a role that requires her to do a verbal Stepin Fetchit), Smart People ends up being part doctoral thesis and part play.
Smart People runs through April 9. For tickets or more information call 203-787-4282 or go to www.longwharf.org.