“Identity is tricky, it’s complicated,” says Ginny, one of the four characters in Smart People, currently on stage at Long Wharf Theatre.
If that isn’t an understatement, I don’t know what is. This witty and wise play written by Lydia R. Diamond moves at lightning speed and goes way below the surface to examine not only obvious, in-your-face racism, but the myriad of biases and stereotyping that infuse all aspects of the human condition, literally popping up in every sentence uttered by this exceptional ensemble cast.
Diamond did her homework, reading the research findings of neuropsychologist Susan T. Fiske, whose Stereotype Content Model theory concludes that people easily categorize one another, especially when it comes to race, gender, and age. She took this dry data and brought it to humorous three-dimensional life, embodying the controversial findings in her characters.
Ginny Yang (Ka-Ling Cheung) is an Asian-American psychologist named Valerie; Johnston (Tiffany Nichole Greene) is an aspiring African-American actress; Jackson Moore (Sullivan Jones) is an ER doctor who also runs a neighborhood clinic; and Brian White (Peter O’Connor)—the story’s lynchpin—is a white neurobiologist who has committed his life to studying the human brain’s response to racial differences to prove that racial bias is inherent in Caucasians.
The setting is the home of Harvard intellectuals: Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the time is 2007-2009, during Barack Obama’s run for president.
The only two characters who know each other when the play begins are Jackson and Brian, friends who play basketball together at a local gym. Eventually everyone connects in work and/or romantic relationships—they are all very smart and passionate about what they do and believe, but also vulnerable and flawed human beings, unable to admit that they are all guilty of various types of profiling. Diamond shapes their interactions into a lively and sometimes disturbing dance, crisply choreographed by the production’s director, Desdemona Chiang.
Greene is the perfect choice to play the lovable and very real Valerie, who seems to run into bias at every turn.
One of the funniest scenes illustrating the premise of the play is between Valerie and Jackson, when Valerie meets him for the first time in the ER where she arrives decked out in an Elizabethan costume (she has a role in Julius Caesar) with a bloody head wound. She asks to see a doctor, assuming he isn’t one—he’s wearing blue scrubs not a white coat and doesn’t have a name tag. He assumes she’s the victim of domestic violence when in fact she ran into a wall on the set of the play. She sarcastically remarks that she always dresses up in Shakespearean garb before she gets beat up by a man. Later he asks her why a black woman is even cast in a Shakespearean production. She retorts that none of the actors are Roman, either. You get the picture.
Jones is first-rate as the intense and driven physician who battled his way through med school, always needing to prove himself due to the color of his skin, and as a result, never letting down his guard and never having the time to work on his awkward social skills.
Cheung is charming as the quirky Ginny, who, when she isn’t doing psychological studies of Asian people, is compulsively buying expensive clothes and shoes. Like Jackson, she is so intent on her career and its daily obstacles as an Asian American woman that getting in touch with her feelings hasn’t been a priority, which comes out when she and Brian start dating and he wants more than she is willing or able to give.
O’Connor has the most challenging role as Brian, the passionate professor trying to prove a hypothesis about racism that makes the white academics around him—who think of themselves as colorblind progressives—incredibly uncomfortable. O’Connor captures Brian’s determination and quick temper with spirited energy, but because he is clearly the character voicing the playwright’s message that the other three characters circle around, at times his ravings and lecturing get pedantic and we wish he’d just chill out.
Patrick Lynch’s set design is simple—a large projection of three x-rays of craniums and several pieces of furniture, discreetly moved around by the characters. But that’s all that’s necessary in this dialogue-driven production in which it’s hard to take your eyes of the characters, anyway. Mary Readinger has done a terrific job with costumes to fit the many stereotypes being depicted.
Performances of Smart People continue through Monday, May 1 at Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven. Tickets are available by calling the box office at 203-787-4282 or visiting www.longwharf.org.