Monday, June 16, 2014

Race Riff: Smart People

Eunice Wong, McKinley Belcher III (top), Miranda Craigwell, Roderick Hill in Smart People (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

When I was I was in graduate school I directed an African American freshman in a production of David Rabe’s Vietnam War play The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel. He had to play a working-class black soldier who spoke in jive, and though he was a stunningly gifted performer (who went on to a successful acting career) for a while he struggled with the requirements of the role. Here he was, a sophisticated young urban black man, a journalist’s son who’d gotten into Stanford, and I was asking him to sound like some hip street-corner dude. The fact that I was a white guy – and so was Rabe – couldn’t have helped.

My actor figured it out and gave a brilliant performance, and over the years I’d forgotten how resistant he was in the initial stages. What brought it back to mind was Lydia R. Diamond’s vivid and hilarious new Cambridge-set play Smart People, the season closer for Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company. Somehow I missed Diamond’s last collaboration with the Huntington, Stick Fly (2010), and missed it again during its New York run, and now I feel foolish because I had such a good time at Smart People. It’s a four-handed high comedy (as the title suggests) that mines the same awkward, slippery, rich territory as Bruce Norris’s great Clybourne Park. Diamond’s not up to Norris – she has a weakness for speechifying that keeps stopping the play cold, and she tends to fumble shifts in tone – but she’s very talented. The play is about how race sets up class expectations and the often ridiculous tangles that intelligent, educated, sensitive twenty-first-century liberals get themselves into as they try to negotiate the treacherous waters of race. The four characters are Jackson (McKinley Belcher III), a black surgeon who moonlights at a clinic he opened in a poor neighborhood; his friend Brian (Roderick Hill), a white Harvard neuroscientist whose study on racism in whites is getting him in trouble with his institution; Ginny (Eunice Wong), a half-Chinese, half-Japanese psychologist, also on the Harvard faculty, who’s conducting research on depression and low esteem in low-income Chinese women; and Valerie (Miranda Craigwell), an African American actor who dates Jackson (briefly) and gets part-time work in Brian’s lab when Harvard begins to pull his funding. All four are opinionated, tough-minded, outspoken and articulate, which makes them ideal figures for comedy of manners. They’re also touchy, quick to assume – through bitter experience – that other people tend to operate out of deep-dyed prejudices they mostly don’t know they possess. So they sally forth into conversational gambits with their dukes up.

McKinley Belcher III and Miranda Craigwell
The play is structured as a series of episodes, often built on misperceptions, that explode like tiny missiles. For instance, Valerie and Jackson meet when she goes to the ER while he’s on duty; she’s bleeding from the forehead after colliding with a set piece during a rehearsal, but it takes her a while to convince him that she isn’t just covering up for a violent boy friend. He gives her a card for his clinic and scribbles his cell phone number on the back, hoping that she’s interested enough in him to use it, but when she does it’s to make an appointment at the clinic, and she gets baffled when he tries to redirect her to the number on the front of the card. Eventually they sort out this confusion and he persuades her to let him cook dinner for her, and for a while the date goes well (they end up in bed). But things take an unfortunate turn when he compliments her on her appetite for soul food and her savvy about what condiments to apply to it. Valerie gets pissed because she thinks he’s testing her credentials and making assumptions about her based on class. Roused to anger – it takes just as little to get Jackson going – he challenges her choice of a career that, in his view, doesn’t benefit the race; after all, he tends to wounded gangbangers. By the time she storms out of his apartment, you can practically see the smoke in her wake.

Brian and Ginny meet on a diversity committee (what else?) and there’s an immediate spark between them, but though they wind up living together, their courtship isn’t an easy one either. She isn’t good at relationships, and though she likes him she doesn’t buy his idea that he has impeccable liberal credentials just because he’s conducting a controversial study that provides evidence that all whites are racist. Jackson doesn’t either. Toward the end of the play the two men have an argument that leaves Jackson smoldering silently when Brian suggests that as a result of his research – which has finally gotten him fired from Harvard – he, the privileged white guy, is the one who’s being treated as a nigger, while Jackson, who walked out on his hospital job after a tiff with the chief of staff, is merely being treated as a black guy with a chip on his shoulder and a problem with authority.

Diamond’s wit and the breadth of her vision take the characters into one unexpected place after another, and the play is full of glittering observations, some of them peripheral. Both women have to overcome Jackson’s initial assumption that they’re battered women, Ginny when she walks into his clinic hoping to get some of his patients to participate in her study. Ginny, who offers free counseling to the women she interviews, has to keep steering one of them to talk to her in English because she isn’t fluent in Chinese. I loved the incidental touch that when Valerie – this fierce young woman who’s capable of satirizing the audition process when she shows up to read for the role of a social worker and is given a scene for a stereotyped low-rent black part – is lectured on the phone by her formidable mother, whom she has to call “ma’am.” Not all of Diamond’s ideas come off, though: the scene where Ginny responds to what she thinks is Brian’s patriarchal treatment of her by playing the submissive Asian whore is so strident that it threw me out of the play.

Eunice Wong and Roderick Hill (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)
The four actors handle Diamond’s banter with finesse. My only quibble with any of them is that Craigwell doesn’t make a strong enough impression in the bits we see of her as Juliet and Portia in Julius Caesar. The running gag about her continually showing up in Shakespeare and Ibsen, when she’s mostly considered for roles that don’t get beyond the color of her skin, requires her to knock us out (as Jackson is knocked out when he shows up to see one of her performances). I appreciated Alexander Dodge’s double-tiered scenic design – geometric pieces that slide across like Japanese doors to reveal rooms behind – but the director, Peter DuBois, underscores its flatness by keeping the actors in straight lines; the staging is the only dull element in the production. Junghyun Georgia Lee has designed some handsome character outfits for the two women.

Brian’s conclusions about white racism unsettles both the black characters. Jackson reminds him of the danger of mixing race and politics (as the Nazis did); Valerie admits that she finds his study frightening – and that it offers an incomplete picture. “It’s more complicated than that,” she observes quietly. That line could be the mantra of Diamond’s play, and it’s her insistence on honoring complication that makes Smart People so compelling.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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