New York City Theater
Second Stage Theater
We get it! We get it! Lydia R. Diamond’s “Smart People” spends more than two hours spinning its wheels to repeat that racism is not acquired or learned but inherent in the brain. Well, especially in white men’s brains. “I want to prove all white people are racists,” says the scientist conducting the survey. “It’s in our blood, a predisposition to hate.”
It takes a veritable U.N. to tell the story: one white man (a neuroscience professor), one black man (a doctor), one Asian woman (a psychologist) and an African-American woman (an actress). It’s how they join with each other, sexually as well as intellectually, that gives pattern to the thesis. And this, despite all the romantic coupling, is a thesis work. By labeling racism as endemic, Diamond is getting at something so painful, so distancing, so incisive that it would take a tome to explore and she has not, as yet, found a way to integrate characters and ideas into a dramatic whole.
Although set in Cambridge, Mass., home of Harvard University, it may as well be set along the San Andreas fault. When these disparate worlds collide (the time is 2008-9), the sound is rumbling and cacophonous.
Stereotyping as a component of racism is not confined to white vs. black. When the actress visits an emergency room for stitches after an accident, she innocently assumes the doctor, a fellow African-American, is a nurse. Her own identity as a Shakespearean actor is shaken when she’s forced to become a house cleaner for extra cash, a menial job.
That the professor beds the psychologist, the doctor the actress, implies sex is the great leveler, sweeping away prejudice. Alas, at the end, characters who didn’t know each other at the beginning coalesce in a brickbat-throwing dinner scene that’s reminiscent of the more effective one in “Disgraced.”
All is told against the historical election of our first black president. Echoing Barack Obama’s slogan of “hope and change,” the work holds that all could be well. Who can argue? But too much is underdeveloped, plopped in like stones in a pond.
Under Kenny Leon’s scattered direction on Ricardo Hernandez’ expansive, isolating set, the actors fight to make themselves more than mouthpieces. Skillfully overcoming sermonizing, Mahershala Ali is the temperamental doctor; Joshua Jackson the well-meaning professor; Anne Son the stirring psychologist; and Tessa Thompson the sometimes insecure, sometimes forthright actress denied roles because of her color.
We need constant reminding of the pangs of racism. But Lydia R. Diamond’s “Smart People,” grounded in pain and humor, could use some editing.
--David A. Rosenberg
Feb. 29, 2016