By Sue Henninger
“Smart People,” by Lydia R. Diamond, Kitchen Theatre Company, through September 24, 272-0570, www.kitchentheatre.org. Brief intermission.
The Kitchen Theatre Company has opened its new season – its first with new Producing Artistic Director M. Bevin O’Gara at the helm.
If the first play she’s chosen, “Smart People,” written by Lydia R. Diamond and directed by Summer L. Williams, is any indication of what’s to come, her audiences are in for a memorable journey down roads that will be both recognizable and unfamiliar.
Set in Boston, the play centers on the intersection of the lives of four indisputably smart people. Brian, played by Jake Lee Smith, is a white neurobiologist whose research focuses on the human brain’s response to race and how that translates into internalized and institutionalized racist practices. Ginny (Shannon Tyo) is a career woman on the fast track, an Asian American psychologist with one flaw that makes her less than perfect-a pronounced shopping addiction. Folami Williams, who plays Valerie, is an aspiring Shakespearean actress who spends much of her time trying to avoid being typecast as a black woman and attempting to earn a living so she doesn’t have to ask her parents for money. Jackson (Bryce Michael Wood) is a young African American doctor struggling with racism in the hospital he works in, while providing medical care to people of color at his low-cost health clinic.
In the first act, no one listens to anyone else. The four characters constantly talk over and around each other, each pushing their own agenda. In short order, Valerie, Jackson, Brian, and Ginny manage to offend each other on every level possible-professionally, sexually, and intellectually. Political correctness seems to have flown out the window as biases and stereotypes rapidly ricochet off each other like random bullets from an assault weapon. Despite this, they somehow manage to forge fragile alliances across racial lines.
Lisa Boquist (Costume Design) has once again skillfully used clothing to reinforce the essence of how each character wants the world to see them. Ginny is the perfect combination of chic and business in her suits, stiletto heels, and no-nonsense glasses. Brian looks every bit of the renegade professor he’s trying to be and Valerie, in her colorful bohemian outfits, is clearly not destined for a nine-to-five career. Jackson segues seamlessly between his professional scrubs and white coat to sweaty basketball attire.
Rasean Davonte Johnson’s use of sound and silence in the play is brilliant. Overwhelming static and jarring incomprehensible background noise reinforces the difficulty of communicating with others in meaningful ways when the interference is incessant. In contrast, Barack Obama’s calm, steady voice and simple message of hope emerges from the chaos like a lifeline tossed to a drowning man. Set & Lighting Designer Tyler M. Perry adroitly reinforces this dissonance with his choices of imagery and lighting.
By the second act it’s hard not to be emotionally invested in the engaging characters and the outcome of the play. This is probably a good thing, because the dialogue frequently turns into biting social commentary. This can be as uncomfortable for audience members to hear as it sometimes is for Brian, who sees himself as the least racist person he knows.
When Brian’s theories and practices ultimately get him fired the friends gather for dinner, ostensibly to cheer him up. The evening rapidly disintegrates into a no-holds-barred conversation about race. Initially, Brian’s outrage at being discriminated against because of his research topic borders on comical. However, when he questions why no one will listen to him, even after he played by the university’s rules by using hard scientific data to support his racial theories, and adds “They’re supposed to hear me. I’m the white guy!” suddenly it’s not so funny anymore. Especially when he’s confronted with the fact that his world is falling apart simply because, perhaps for the first time in his life, his white privilege didn’t work out for him. Furious, Brian proclaims that life sucks for everyone and storms out, leaving the others sitting in awkward silence, avoiding eye contact. Unsurprisingly, no one wants dessert.
The implications of the spoken dialogue and implied significance of the silences in this multi-layered production are hard to ignore and Williams evokes powerhouse performances from all the cast members. Through her expert direction and the skill of the actors, the audience comes to know them in all their complexity; how they think, feel, and behave as individuals and in relationships with others.
The beauty of this play is that it packs an emotional punch, inducing laughter while simultaneously asking “What’s so funny about that?” Are the cultural biases, words, and thoughts that seem to spew out of the four characters truly odious? Or has the world become mired in a maelstrom of political correctness that leaves us unable to communicate even the simplest thoughts and feelings about race or related topics to each other without misunderstandings or a moral judgments?
Diamond’s “Smart People” offers playgoers the opportunity to take a seat at the metaphorical table and openly question their own beliefs and biases. For some, this may result in a bout of self-flagellation, for others it may be a reaffirmation that we’re all in this together and that the first step toward positive change is getting to know each other through open, honest conversations. And what better place to do that than in the Kitchen!