If Lydia R. Diamond’s Smart People hadn’t premiered in Boston in 2014, it would be natural to assume it was tailored to this specific moment, when Hollywood is squirming over its spotty record of diversity representation, and one of the leading candidates for the Republican presidential ticket is running on a xenophobia platform. Seldom do contemporary American plays tap so directly into the cultural conversation as it’s happening. That pinpoint convergence energizes Kenny Leon’s jazzy production and his sizzling four-person cast, making stimulating entertainment out of a play whose narrative momentum occasionally falls short of its thematic perspicacity.
Leon (who recently earned plaudits for directing The Wiz Live! on NBC) last collaborated with Diamond on Broadway in 2011 on Stick Fly, which dug into race, class and gender politics in the context of a quarrelsome upper middle class African American family. (The play is being developed as a series by HBO.) This sharper follow-up work touches on some of the same subjects but moves away from the domestic structure to frame its arguments within a liberal professional orbit. The result is both a provocative dialectic and a lively comedy, with prickly characters that push back against one another’s preconceptions, often questioning their own in the process.
Unfolding in 2008, the year leading up to Barack Obama’s inauguration, the play takes well-aimed shots at the illusion of a post-racial America, using its timing in recent history to make us consider what, if anything, has changed in the eight years since the nation elected its first black president. All four characters are connected to Harvard, so it’s not ignorant bigotry that Diamond is putting under her microscope but the subtle strains of prejudice that inform the views and behavior of even the most educated self-identified liberals.
Posed with playful seriousness, the key question is this: Is a negative response to racial difference hardwired into our brains? The answer appears to be yes, according to a controversial study in patterns and perceptions of racial identity by the tellingly named Brian White (Joshua Jackson), a professor in neuroscience. He’s doing penance teaching thankless undergrad courses after his op-ed pieces and NPR appearances kicked up a firestorm by exposing Harvard’s “aggressive passivity” on race and discrimination.
Brian’s study is also making African Americans nervous, among them his basketball buddy Jackson Moore (Mahershala Ali), a surgical intern at a Boston teaching hospital who also runs a clinic for low-income patients in Chinatown. While he’s skilled and dedicated, he’s also a hothead with no filter, which gets him into trouble whenever his white supervisors start second-guessing his decisions.
Jackson meets Valerie Johnston (Tessa Thompson) in the emergency room, and their chemistry is apparent from their first date. But even between these two black characters, ingrained attitudes of racism, sexism and classism get in the way, from Jackson’s side in particular. He seems pleased when her taste for hot sauce shows that she’s “down,” but when she points out the absurdity of that assumption he calls her “saddity,” using the black slang for a stuck-up woman.
Valerie is a recent acting MFA graduate. Her scenes of professional discrimination are hilarious, from a reporter’s patronizing questions about her “color-blind casting” in Julius Caesar to a priceless audition in which she arrives expecting to read for the social worker, only to learn she’s up for the “ghetto” role. To make rent, Valerie does housecleaning gigs (viewed by Jackson as setting herself back to the type of work that was their mothers’ and grandmothers’ only option) and signs up as Brian’s office assistant. She also campaigns for Obama.
The many scenes in which we see and hear only one side of (usually tense) two-way conversations — whether it’s Valerie with a casting director, Jackson with senior hospital staff or Brian with a disgruntled Harvard dean — are charged with electricity. That applies to Diamond’s writing, Leon’s driving direction and to the terrific performances. Some of the funniest of those scenes involve the fourth character, Ginny Yang (Anne Son), a brittle psychology professor of mixed Chinese-Japanese origin, who gets her control kicks in compulsive shopping, turning each transaction into a combative standoff.
Ginny is studying patterns of self-limiting behavior in Asian American women, which leads her to Jackson’s clinic looking for interview subjects. However, even in one-on-one sessions with a troubled psych patient, she observes rather than empathizes. “I’m uncomfortable celebrating my marginalization with other disgruntled marginalized people,” she unapologetically admits. Ginny meets Brian on a Harvard panel for “minority matriculation, retention and recruitment,” which both of them approach with an undisguised eye roll, and while she doesn’t really do the girlfriend thing, they fall into a kind of a relationship.
The occasional scene doesn’t entirely ring true, such as when Ginny services Brian like a docile geisha in the sack, in order to prove the point that despite all his posturing he’s still “a white male patriarchal asshole,” to use his own chastened words. And the play at times feels less like a developing narrative then a succession of whip-smart scenes illustrating variations on a theme. Paradoxically, for a work written by a woman, the male characters have a more robust arc than their female counterparts, who have learned and lost much less by the end. But it’s hard to quibble with a play that remains so consistently intelligent, scathingly funny and even affecting in its understated way.
It also seems fitting, given the racially motivated discord still festering across the country, that the ending should attempt no tidy resolutions. But Diamond does tie it up with an effective dinner-party scene, during which all four characters come together for the first time, acknowledging their differences in ways ranging from bitterness through amusement to resignation.
Leon drives the action along at a brisk pace, conducting overlapping scenes on Riccardo Hernandez’s spare institutional set, with sometimes as many as four parallel conversations happening at once. If that causes a momentary loss of clarity here and there, it doesn’t diminish the nonstop volley of talking points, for the most part deftly integrated into the characters’ interactions. This is a play with a lot on its mind, and yet it never veers into the didactic.
All four actors are making impressive New York stage debuts after coming up primarily in film and television, and there’s not a weak link in the bunch. Jackson strikes just the right balance between arrogance and sincerity in Brian, his cockiness slowly deflating as he slides from Harvard golden boy to pariah. While his role involves some repetition that could benefit from trimming, his final reckoning packs the most weight as he blurts out wounded statements that expose the deep-rooted sense of white privilege he tries to deny.
He’s superbly matched with Son, whose needling character lets no questionable racial or sexual slight go unremarked. Ginny’s aggressive edges are played for spiky humor, but she also suggests a softer side when she reveals the pressures and insecurities that come with a MacArthur “genius” grant. Ginny also makes the astute point that race in America is literally such a black and white conversation that Asians and everyone else tend to get bundled under the all-inclusive “other” heading and then ignored.
Thompson, who turned heads onscreen in another edgy satire of racial identity, Dear White People, nails both the sardonic manner and the gnawing dissatisfaction of a character that wants both professional fulfillment and romantic connection but is unwilling to compromise who she is to get either.
The cast’s major revelation though is Ali. Familiar as the shrewd lobbyist-turned-White House Chief of Staff on House of Cards, he proves himself here to be a natural-born stage animal with charisma to burn. A towering specimen of sculpted masculinity, he responds to Brian’s earnest question as to whether Jackson let him win at basketball with a pitying look that says is all. But just for good measure, he deadpans: “Look at me.” Watching Valerie and Jackson circle one another with wary attraction is agonizing since they seem predestined to be together if they could just get some perspective on their differences. But then, that seems to be everybody’s trouble.
Venue: Second Stage Theatre, New York
Cast: Mahershala Ali, Joshua Jackson, Anne Son, Tessa Thompson
Director: Kenny Leon
Playwright: Lydia R. Diamond
Set designer: Riccardo Hernandez
Costume designer: Paul Tazewell
Lighting designer: Jason Lyons
Music: Zane Mark
Sound designer: Nevin Steinberg
Projection designer: Zachary G. Borovay
Presented by Second Stage Theatre