All I really want to say about Lydia R. Diamond’s Smart People is that it lives up to its title in every possible respect. That one sentence would tell you everything you need to know in order to decide whether it’s for you without risking the possibility of my spoiling a single moment of your experience. But for those of you who require a lengthier review, here is a little more detail.
A fascinating and compelling piece about race, the action is set around Harvard University in 2008. Perspective on this always hot topic is provided by a white professor, an Asian psychologist, and two African Americans: a doctor and an actress. It would be easy to draw on stereotypes, but Ms. Diamond doesn’t fall into that trap. The foursome is keenly aware of the role race is playing in their lives even while they strive to lead color-blind lives. Using the period leading up to Obama’s first election adds an interesting twist. From the vantage point of 2016, we know that America was ready to elect a black president. But we also must acknowledge that amazing step did not erase racism from our culture; Ferguson, Flint and fluffy white Oscars happened anyway.
I was initially drawn to this production because of the cast: Mahershala Ali (House of Cards), Joshua Jackson (The Affair, Fringe and, yes, Pacey from Dawson’s Creek), Anne Son (My Generation) and Tessa Thompson (Dear White People, Creed). They are all in top form, giving variation, humor and dramatic timing to the dialogue-heavy script. All are tasked at key moments to deliver emotional scenes with an unseen partner and all are more than up to the challenge. But they are even better when working together. Their chemistry grew throughout the performance and I greatly enjoyed being in their company. Extra praise should be given to Mr. Jackson who had to accomplish all of this while being hit with the occasional distracting “woo-hoo” from the audience.
Credit for the flow must be shared with the production team. Kenny Leon – who previously collaborated with Ms. Diamond on Stick Fly – taps into the glimpses of each backstory and gives his characters wonderful nuance and texture. Scenic Designer Riccardo Hernandez uses Zachary G. Borovay’s projections and simple modular pieces to move us rapidly from one location to the next. And Zane Mark adds some atmospheric spice with his original music.
Smart People is playing at the Second Stage’s midtown venue (which is suitably staffed with smart people.) The limited engagement must end March 6, 2016. For tickets and information visit http://2st.com/shows/current-production/smart-people.