Oct 18, 2017

Perspectives: 'Smart People' and the constant search for 'yes'

Photos from the making of the DCPA Theatre Company’s ‘Smart People,’ directed by Nataki Garrett and featuring Tatiana Williams, Timothy McCracken, Jason Veasey and Esther Chen. To see more, hover your cursor over the image above and click the forward arrow that appears. Photos by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.

Five things we learned about the Theatre Company’s new comedy at our ongoing series of free conversations.
By John Moore
Senior Arts Journalist

Lydia R. Diamond’s Smart People, opening Friday in the Ricketson Theatre, is a play that takes its premise from an idealistic, real-life Princeton University neuropsychologist named whose research led her to believe that there is an identifiable gene in the bodies of white people that causes them to be racist. “Idealistic” because, in this emerging era of gene manipulation, the possibility might then exist that racism could one day be filtered out of human existence.

It’s also a funny comedy about four impossibly smart and impossibly beautiful young people embroiled in America’s often comically self-deluded conversations about gender and race at the hopeful dawn of the first Obama administration.

When Diamond read the article about Fiske’s quest to solve the problem of racism by locating that elusive gene, she knew she wanted to write a play about it. In an interview with the Huntington Theatre Company, Diamond said: “The genesis was a paper by Susan Fiske, who studies the roots of stereotyping based on race, gender and age. My husband, a sociologist, happened upon the article and said, ‘You may want to look at this.’ It kind of jolted me and made me think, ‘What would be the ramifications of that line of inquiry? I started to see that across disciplines, studies about race aggressively worked to talk around race; I imagine because it’s such a powder keg.”

Here are five things we learned about the DCPA Theatre Company’s production of Smart People at Perspectives, an ongoing series of free conversations with audiences held before the first preview performance of most every Theatre Company offering. The panel featured Garrett and her entire four-actor cast of Tatiana Williams, Timothy McCracken, Jason Veasey and Esther Chen, as well as Lighting Designer Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew.

Join moderator Douglas Langworthy next at 6 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 19 in the Jones Theatre for a talk on Matthew Lopez’s world-premiere comedy Zoey’s Perfect Wedding.

NUMBER 1 Jurassic-ParkHow did this play come about? “It’s a real study,” Smart People Director Nataki Garrett said of Fiske’s research. “You can download that article on the internet right now.” And if you read it, she said, “What you will find is this person’s earnest desire to create change. That is a symptom of this idealistic time we were in just after Barack Obama was elected. The character in our play who is pursuing this idea really does want to help humanity.” But Colorado Springs native Jason Veasey (pictured below right), who plays a different character in the play, says beware of the story’s Frankenstein overtones. “The problem with human beings’ pursuit of knowledge to the furthest extremes, even with the best intentions, is that there will always be other human beings who want to take that knowledge and do something bad with it,” Veasay said, “whether it be trying to identify a gene that makes people racist — or creating a park with real live dinosaurs. Look what happened when they did that!

NUMBER 2 Smart People. Jason Veasey. Photo by John MooreHigh hopes and high I.Qs. The play is intentionally set just as the country was electing its first African-American president, said Garrett, also the Theatre Company’s Associate Artistic Director. “That was a very optimistic time in our county — for some people,” she said. “There was this revelry around the idea that we were participating in something that was happening for the first time. Because whenever you embark on something for the first time, then what you are probably doing is changing the world. These people meet at a time when they, too, are embarking on something new — with the election, with each other and with their ideas. What they are looking to discover is something about who we are as a nation.”

NUMBER 3 Double vision: It is believed that Smart People is the first time the Denver Center’s tiny Ricketson Theatre has ever accommodated a double-decker set. That means it has two floors, courtesy of Scenic Designer Efren Delgadillo Jr., with input from Garrett, who initially was told the Ricketson had never been bisected horizontally because the former movie theatre just doesn’t have the height. Which set Garrett’s curiosity on a quest to find out if it could be done. That didn’t surprise her actors, who call working with Garrett what they call “The Search for Yes.” “I Iike to be told what I can’t do, and then … I just have to see for myself,” Garrett said to laughter. “We jigsaw-puzzled ideas for days looking for ways to make is happen” – and with help from the DCPA design team, they did. The result, Garrett said, is an intentionally spare set made up of extremely clean and efficient lines. “I needed a space where the playwright’s words are most prominent, unfettered by other scenic elements,” she said.

Smart People. Photo by John Moore

NUMBER 4 What is ‘The Search for Yes’? When design artists come to Denver, one thing they quickly discover, Garrett said, “is that the team from the Denver Center can do anything. If you say to the people who put their hands on the stages here that you have this really crazy idea, the answer is almost always, exclusively, going to be ‘yes.’ They will do whatever it takes to make it happen.” As an example, she asked those in attendance to pay particular attention to the use of projections in Smart People. “How they did what they did in that teeny space is amazing to me,” Garrett said. Added Veasey: “It feels like you are on the inside of a TV.”

NUMBER 5 What is ‘color-blind casting’? Diamond’s script very specifically calls for an African-American woman who in turn plays an aspiring actor. At one point in the story, she is asked about her current role in a production of Julius Caesar, and specifically whether her casting in the traditionally white Shakespeare play is the result of “color-blind casting” — one of the most polarizing issues among real-life actors. Garrett was asked to define the term, and say whether she advocates for it. After a deep breath, she accepted the challenge:

“So … ‘color-blind casting’ is an idea that is born out of the age of multiculturalism, where you might take a play that historically was connected to just one culture and cast it instead in a way that is inclusive of several cultures or identities,” she said. “Color-blind casting sometimes works and sometimes it doesn’t. I believe that when it doesn’t work, it is because of an earnest desire to create a world in which color does not exist — as opposed to creating a world in which color and race and identity are actually tangible things that we hold dear. Where it is important for us to have and embrace difference, as opposed to homogeny. Often, color-blind casting can further marginalize people of color because the question usually comes with the inference that, ‘You were not supposed to be doing this.’ That means you were given an opportunity that doesn’t actually belong to you. I believe in casting that allows for people to be considered for roles based on their skills and for their density and for their ability and depth and knowledge — not based primarily on their identity. So I am not a ‘color-blind caster.’ I would say that I am a ‘color-conscious caster.’ I am very aware of the people in the bodies of the people I work with, and I honor them in their bodies, and I need them to be who they are.”

John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S. by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.