REVIEW: SMART PEOPLE
at The Denver Center
by Noah Lee Jordan
“SMART PEOPLE, hmmm…that might be interesting.”
I remember having that exact thought when Denver Center Theatre Company announced their newest season. I mean it was a play with “Ivy League” credentials, right? Brian is a double PhD working in neuropsychiatry at Harvard; Ginny, his colleague, is a professor of psychology and a genius grant awardee; Jackson is a surgical intern at Harvard’s medical school; and Valerie is a recent graduate of Harvard’s MFA program in acting. Damn, those are some smart people. It was a play about smart people and maybe I didn’t go to Harvard or anything, but I certainly consider myself a smart person, so why the hell wouldn’t I go see it?
Lydia R Diamond’s SMART PEOPLE, performed by the Denver Center Theatre Company, has the potential to force an audience member to reexamine their intellectual beliefs and inherit thoughts on racism and equality. But in today’s modern society where these types of conversations and dialogues happen more regularly than not, a few updates to the script might be a necessity.
Set in the year leading up to Barack Obama’s 2008 election, in and around the Harvard campus, Smart People alternately confirms and confounds racial stereotypes. Brian (Timothy McCracken) is a scholar who has made it his mission to expose inherent racism even among well-meaning liberals. (“I’m just a white guy who wanted to know what it meant, in my brain, to be a white guy,” he explains.)
Ginny (Esther Chen), of Chinese and Japanese heritage, works with depression among third-generation Asian-American women. She also has a shopping addiction and a bed-hopping habit. “Because I’m a slut,” she explains in one of the laugh lines. “Not because I’m Asian.” Jackson (Jason Veasey), an African American surgeon-in-training, struggles with his own temper and the condescension of his superiors. And finally, Valerie (Tatianna Williams), also African American, is just trying to make enough to pay rent and to fend off journalists who insist that her casting as Portia in Julius Caesar is a “brave” choice, and not merely based on talent.
The play on its own is good. I would certainly pick up the script and enjoy a night in with a glass of wine really digging into it; however, on stage the play (though brilliantly performed) feels disjointed. Some of the relationships feel forced and awkward. How are Brian and Jackson friends? When did Valerie and Ginny become best friends for inauguration day? How did they all manage to live in the same bubble but never realized they all crossed paths until that fateful dinner party? Those are the questions I found myself asking. Are these people real or just place holding stereotypes to prove a point?
In the sociological spirit of the play, I hung back and eavesdropped on some conversations among couples and various groups leaving the theater, wondering if I might hear a difference between what white people and black people were saying. (In the play, Ginny points out that Asian-Americans are often omitted from the dialogue: “It’s just black and white. So I’ll just sit here and let you all work that out.”) So in that spirit, I opted to ignore the Asian-American opinion … just kidding, there weren’t any there to have an opinion, so my only options were well … black and white. Back to the main point, leaving the theatre there were, in fact different opinions. While I heard a few black women praising the play as “accurate” and “true,” (they loved the line, “try being black”) what I heard from a few white couples was actually nothing. It seems black people (and the other mixed ethnicities) HAD an opinion, and at the current moment the white people did not. Hmmm…
Luckily, as I was about to leave an announcement was made that there would be a talk back (a dialogue) in the theatre. I stayed hoping to hear more from the “white perspective”; however, many of the white people still didn’t have too much to say. They listened intently and nodded in agreement and/or understanding at other statements as if they were more interested in eavesdropping than participating. At the end of the night, I don’t necessarily feel the play was entirely “accurate” or “true” but instead left feeling that even in this day and time, there’s still room for more discussion around the subject, and maybe we need more artistic material on the subject to discuss.
SMART PEOPLE is engaging audiences now until November 19th at the Ricketson Theatre on the Denver Center. For tickets or more information, contact the Denver Center Box Office by calling 303-893-4100 or online at www.denvercenter.org.
PHOTO CREDIT: AdamsVisCom