Folami Williams and Bryce Michael Wood in Smart People at the Kitchen Theatre.

COURTESY OF JULIA PACHECO-COLE AND KITCHEN THEATER COMPANY

Folami Williams and Bryce Michael Wood in Smart People at the Kitchen Theatre.

September 11, 2017

Smart People: What We Talk About When We Talk About Race

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“Maybe it’s a fact we all should face / everyone makes judgments based on race”. This lyric, from the musical Avenue Q, was one of the first things that popped into my mind as I walked out of Smart People at the Kitchen Theatre — a play that delves unreservedly into the difficult, yet ever so relevant conversation of race, prejudice and, most importantly, our fear of that conversation itself. Written by the award-winning playwright Lydia R. Diamond and directed by the talented Summer L. Williams from Company One Theatre in Boston, Smart People is wildly funny, gripping and remarkably thought-provoking at its core. It dares us into the daunting task of thoroughly reevaluating ourselves and the world around us.

With an innovative opening sequence involving projections of various news headlines and the voice recording of Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign announcement, the play unfolds around four main characters: Brian, a white neuroscience professor at Harvard who has dedicated himself to finding a neurological explanation for racism and prejudice; Ginny, Brian’s fellow psychology professor at Harvard who studies and counsels Asian American women suffering from anxiety and depression; Jackson, Brian’s best friend, a black surgeon in residency; And Valerie, a young black actress who participates in Brian’s study and later works for him as a research assistant. One of the most remarkable aspects of Diamond’s writing is undoubtedly the dimension and depth that he gives to each character’s personality and narrative.

Politically charged theater often falls into a pattern of reducing characters to their backstory and the ideas their stories are supposed to convey, because balancing characterization, storytelling and thematic elements within the framework of a script turns out to be a challenging endeavor. In Smart People, however, with the actors’ nuanced, emotionally rich portrayal, all four characters reveal themselves to be unique, flawed and sometimes very conflicted individuals that are easy to sympathize with. The audience witness the characters work their way through their conflicts with society, each other, and themselves. Brian struggles with the controversy around his research and his turbulent relationship with Ginny, who in turn is coming to terms with her insecurities as an Asian-American woman in male-dominated academia. Jackson deals with bias against black doctors and Valerie discovers the hardships of being a black actress. The characters push us to question our own belief system and behavior.

I’m inclined to believe that every member of the audience that night had a moment in which something they’ve never noticed about themselves suddenly dawned on them. For me, as an Asian woman myself, the epiphany occurred early on, during Ginny’s first meeting with Brian. When Brian starts flirting with her, my first thought went to “yellow fever,” which turns out to be Ginny’s immediate reaction as well. Consequently, when Brian gives an unexpected response to her question about his dating demographic, telling her that his last girlfriend was white and blond, my feeling of embarrassment echoed Ginny’s. I justified my prejudice with the fact that I’ve seen similar scenarios too many times. Does this mean that prejudice is a mechanism, albeit an unwanted one, to “protect” us from the foreign, the unknown, the “other”? Are we inevitably biased against those different from us, even if we never intended to be?

The answer Brian tries to offer his colleagues and students is a concrete yes. He goes as far as claiming that our brains are hardwired that way, an idea that’s hard to swallow. Smart People, however, doesn’t try to convince its audience one way or another — it simply encourages us to face the existence of bias. In the second to last scene, pièce de résistance of the whole play, when the four characters gather at Brian and Ginny’s for dinner, the heated argument that has been building up since the beginning finally erupts. Diamond’s clever, witty dialogue transforms itself into a needle and jabs us where it hurts most. The mixture of anger, frustration, cynicism and the desperate urge to understand coming from the characters is overwhelming, yet satisfying. When the monster called prejudice that’s been lurking in a dark corner all this time finally rears its ugly head, and the weight of the conversation, thinly veiled in lightheartedness and humor in the hour before, comes crashing down upon the characters and the spectators, we become distressed and enthralled at the same time. The scene is a beautiful mess. Disturbing because of the self-awareness it thrusts upon us, yet breathtaking in its intricate and multifaceted analysis of racism.

At curtain call, we’re left with thoughts unfinished and words unsaid. The only thing that appears to be certain is that this country, this world, and humanity as a whole might always be a work in progress. And that’s surprisingly comforting to know, especially in the current political climate. Only then can we refuel our optimism, our hope for a better tomorrow. It’s why we go to the theater, after all.

Editor’s Note: Catch “Smart People” at the Kitchen Theatre Company now through September 24th, before the show leaves for the Geva Theatre Center in Rochester, NY.

Andrea Yang is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Science and can be reached at yy545@cornell.edu.