Huntington's "Smart People": Four Play

Roderick Hill & McKinley Belcher III
(photo: T. Charles Erickson) 

As its final production of the season, Huntington Theatre Company is presenting the world premiere of “Smart People”, a very funny treatment of some very serious stuff. It’s a mind-bending work by Huntington Playwriting Fellow Lydia R. Diamond, whose “Stick Fly” was well received in 2010. Diamond was inspired by the recently published research by social psychologists Banaji and Greenwald (“Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People”), part of Harvard’s Project Implicit, about “implicit biases”. They found that even well-intentioned people, regardless of what they profess as their beliefs or positive intentions, have great difficulty when asked to associate images of black people with positive words, or those of Asian-Americans with patriotic words. This led to the development of the Stereotype Content Model, which holds that people categorize others, particularly based on race, gender, and age, and that we only get to know people in categories beyond our own core group when we find ourselves obligated to work in a more diverse group or play on a team.

In “Smart People“, four educated Cambridge residents are brought together through work and sport, managing to keep tripping over their assumptions and biases about each other. Set against the backdrop of the 2008 presidential election, it portrays Brian (Roderick Hill), a white, male neuro-psychiatrist who does research on race by observing neurological responses the brain has to various images, and how this is affected by race, with its effects on and implications for him, his Asian-American lover Ginny (Eunice Wong) and two African-Americans, Jackson (McKinley Belcher III) and Valerie (Miranda Craigwell). Brian presents some statistical data, asking: “Someone tell me not what it is, but what it implies”. For him, seeing is believing, and he feels that if he can show people who believe they don’t discriminate that they actually do so, he can make change for the better. Ginny, a tenured psychology teacher, states that “findings still debunk Western assumptions naming primary causes for anxiety and depression in Asian Women as familiarly induced…yes, I‘m happy to take questions about our population selection criteria.” For Ginny, it is better to accept people’s biases as fact and develop coping strategies. Jackson, a surgical intern, becomes defensive on rounds: “You asked that I explain my diagnostic reasoning; I’m trying to but…I am listening; I was listening.” Valerie, an actress, finds herself holding back: “That needs more attack, doesn’t it?”

This synopsis may sound overly pedantic, but Diamond knows how to balance the sober with the humorous, mining new insights through her comic dialogue and serious debate. If it all seems a bit too esoteric, fear not. Diamond has a knack for bringing us back to Planet Earth, and all of this intriguing byplay takes place under the very insightful direction of Huntington Artistic Director Peter DuBois. Added to this is the fact that Hill, Wong, Belcher and Craigwell are all superb. Hill is convincing in his drive to unearth our true feelings, and his own, as he masterfully portrays when his own façade starts to crumble. Wong manages to convey all the baggage her in-group accumulates, realizing her double minority status, in the eyes of the larger society, as a woman and an Asian-American, strong yet vulnerable. Belcher perfectly balances his character’s altruism with barely repressed anger at the skewed treatment he receives as a result of his color. Craigwell, painfully aware of the pervasive perception of the black woman as victim, is the most flamboyant of the foursome, which suits her role as an aspiring actress who’s often the smartest person in an audition room. As a group, they manage to provide many permutations and combinations on Diamond’s basic theme of “hard-wired” biases.

The structure of the play, consisting of many black-outs, (or more precisely, “slide-outs” using moving panels and projections) requires timing both on the part of the actors and the technical crew. The Scenic Design by Alexander Dodge, coordinated with the Projection Design by Aaron Rhyne, is crucial to the play’s flow. The rest of the technical achievements, from the Lighting Design by Paul Gallo, to the Costume Design by Junghyun Georgia Lee, and the Sound Design by M.L. Dogg, are also essential to the fluidity of a work that shuttles between 2008 to 2007 to 2009. It’s a brilliant marriage of writing, performance and precision that makes for extremely satisfying theater and thought-provoking ideas. Rarely do intelligence and humor so impressively coexist on the same stage.

As it now stands, this is a clever work, full of wit and wisdom, but it needs some trimming, after being exposed to live reactions from (and interaction with) audiences. In its present form it’s a very promising treatment of the fundamental foibles we all share. It’s enlightening to discover, by taking the lid off one’s id, that smart people aren’t as self-aware, nor as open or accepting, as they may think, but are in reality basically flawed. As author Robert Zend has said, “people have one thing in common; they are all different”. But, in the immortal words of the sociology of Seinfeld: “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”

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