Smart Peo­ple time-trav­els to Obama-era racism THE­ATRE

The Georgia Straight - - Arts -


By Ly­dia R. Di­a­mond. Di­rected by David Mackay. A Mitch and Mur­ray pro­duc­tion, in as­so­ci­a­tion with Anne Marie Deluise. At Stu­dio 16 on Satur­day, Novem­ber 4. Con­tin­ues un­til Novem­ber 18

Re­mem­ber J. Philippe Rush­ton? 2

I do. I had just fin­ished my de­gree at the Univer­sity of West­ern On­tario when the tenured psy­chol­ogy prof gained no­to­ri­ety in the late 1980s for his “re­search” link­ing race to in­tel­li­gence and crime. West­ern even­tu­ally sus­pended his teach­ing priv­i­leges, but he con­tin­ued to pub­lish.

Twenty years later, on the eve of Barack Obama’s first elec­tion, we meet Brian White, the Har­vard re­searcher at the heart of Smart Peo­ple. White (yup) is also study­ing race, but with a very dif­fer­ent mo­ti­va­tion: he’s a white lib­eral who wants to use neu­ro­science to prove that all white peo­ple are ge­net­i­cally pro­grammed to mis­trust and fear darker-skinned peo­ple. (It’s never clear what he thinks prov­ing this will ac­tu­ally ac­com­plish.) Brian gets ro­man­ti­cally in­volved with a col­league, Ginny, a tenured Asian Amer­i­can whose re­search and clin­i­cal prac­tice fo­cus on em­pow­er­ing Asian women. He also shoots hoops with an old friend, Jack­son, a black med­i­cal res­i­dent, and hires a black ac­tor named Va­lerie to help with cler­i­cal work in his of­fice.

Play­wright Ly­dia R. Di­a­mond in­tro­duces us to all four char­ac­ters at the top of the script; in David Mackay’s in-th­er­ound stag­ing, each oc­cu­pies a sep­a­rate cor­ner of the play­ing area. We see Va­lerie strug­gling in re­hearsal, Brian ha­rangu­ing a class of un­der­grad­u­ates, Ginny giv­ing a con­fer­ence pre­sen­ta­tion, and Jack­son be­ing dis­ci­plined at work. The word these mono­logues have in com­mon is con­text, a con­cept cen­tral to Di­a­mond’s mul­ti­fac­eted ex­plo­ration of race pol­i­tics.

Stereo­types aren’t just fod­der for re­search; they in­form ev­ery in­ter­ac­tion. When Jack­son treats Va­lerie in the ER for a head wound sus­tained dur­ing re­hearsal, she is ex­as­per­ated by the sus­pi­cion her in­jury has aroused: “What does a black woman have to do to make you be­lieve she hasn’t been beaten?” We later see the ac­tor, who’s much more com­fort­able do­ing Shake­speare or Ib­sen, at an au­di­tion, strug­gling to make “black English” sound con­vinc­ing. When she tells Jack­son that she’s vol­un­teer­ing for Obama, he is dis­mis­sive: “That’s your whole black card?” he asks.

Ginny is just as com­plex: she may be liv­ing the stereo­type of the Asian over­achiever in her ca­reer, but she is far from sub­mis­sive when deal­ing with re­tail clerks, for in­stance. This com­plex­ity al­lows the aptly named Di­a­mond to stud the play’s dia­logue with jew­els of wit. “Tuna casse­role car­ries no class or cul­tural im­pli­ca­tions,” says Va­lerie, de­fend­ing a potluck con­tri­bu­tion. When Brian ex­plains his re­search to Va­lerie—“i want to prove that all white peo­ple are racists”—she re­torts, “It’s pretty hot when a white guy says that.”

That the char­ac­ters are lik­able and en­gag­ing de­spite the fact that they’re all pretty ar­ro­gant and self-ab­sorbed is a trib­ute to Mackay’s solid cast­ing. Tri­cia Collins is con­vinc­ingly in con­trol as pow­er­house Ginny, Kwesi Ameyaw wears Jack­son’s frus­tra­tion like a gar­ment he can’t shed, and Ka­t­rina Reynolds gives an exquisitely tex­tured per­for­mance as Va­lerie, find­ing all the hu­mour and vul­ner­a­bil­ity in the script’s most fully de­vel­oped char­ac­ter. Aaron Craven plays Brian as a nice guy con­vinced of the mer­its of his re­search, but doesn’t im­bue him with the un­apolo­getic charisma that the char­ac­ter seems to call for.

In-the-round stag­ing is an ap­pro­pri­ate choice for a play that is con­stantly call­ing per­spec­tive into ques­tion, and David Roberts’s min­i­mal­ist mo­du­lar set al­lows for seam­less tran­si­tions be­tween lo­ca­tions. But the stag­ing also means that no mat­ter where you sit, there will be long chunks when you’re look­ing at some­one’s back.

Di­a­mond’s text-heavy script gets a bit repet­i­tive on the sub­ject of Brian’s re­search (which is never en­tirely cred­i­ble—jack­son points out some pretty ma­jor holes). But it’s a fas­ci­nat­ing bit of time travel to watch all the char­ac­ters be­lieve that Obama has no chance of win­ning the elec­tion. Re­mem­ber about a year ago, when none of us be­lieved a cer­tain can­di­date would win? And so the is­sue of race is at the fore­front of Amer­i­can dis­course again—in a much uglier, scarier way. I’m brac­ing my­self for the next J. Philippe Rush­ton.


Smart Peo­ple,

In Kwesi Ameyaw’s med­i­cal res­i­dent, Jack­son, treats Ka­t­rina Reynolds’s Va­lerie for a head wound. Shi­mon Karmel photo.

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