Timothy McCracken and Tatiana Williams in Smart People.
Smart People, Lydia R. Diamond’s play about race that's now at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, is directed by Nataki Garrett, associate artistic director for the DCPA Theatre Company. Garrett was hired by then-artistic director Kent Thompson, who left in March, two months after she started there; Garrett has been holding down the fort during the search for a new artistic director, and through considerable uncertainty about the organization’s artistic aims.
Garrett’s first foray into directing is grounds for optimism. The play is an intriguing choice that deals with one of the deepest issues in our world: the origin of racism, which is particularly relevant as this country’s long partially submerged race hatred rises dangerously to the surface and anti-immigrant fervor increases the power of right-wing leaders from Greece to Austria, the Czech Republic to the United Kingdom. But despite the contentious central topic, Smart People is a comedy, and the fast, clever dialogue, eye-pleasing design and hip, contemporary acting style make for a jazzy, smartly put-together production. Though intelligent and packed with “aha” moments, Smart People doesn’t go deep; you may chat on the way home about your own experiences with race, but you don’t wake up the next morning with the play vibrating in your mind, creating an urgency to fight the poison in your own life.
The play’s four characters are all members of the academic elite; I don’t remember when I’ve heard the word “Harvard” more often during the course of an evening, followed by “Stanford,” “Cornell” and “Michigan.” They’re intensely verbal, though not richly contoured as written; the performers bring the characters to life. Valerie, played with wonderful charm and exuberance by Tatiana Williams, is a talented young actor trying to break away from “ghetto” roles while also resisting the term “color-blind casting” as patronizing. Brian White (yes, really!) is an arrogant neuroscientist with a theory about the origin of racism, a white guy whose liberalism simply isn’t good enough because he’s blinded by his “privilege.” Timothy McCracken, the one local actor in this production, does a fine job of communicating Brian’s dismissiveness, blunderings and occasional blurts of aching sincerity. Esther Chen is Ginny Yang, a psychology professor who edges close to the stereotype of the severely focused-on-success Asian professional (think tiger mom); she relieves her tension with shopping and by bullying salespeople and, in her advice to a (never-seen) young client, reveals some of the reasons behind her reserve. And Jason Veasey is strong as Jackson Moore, the Harvard-educated doctor constantly mistaken by patients — including African-American Valerie — for a nurse, and whose hot-tempered responses are destructive both personally and professionally.
Diamond even finds humor in ideas about stereotyping, as Valerie and Jackson tease and mock each other; Ginny satirically acts out the notion of the submissive, sexy Asian woman for Brian; and the banter between Brian and Jackson threatens their friendship. It’s to the playwright’s credit that although Brian is the obvious butt of everyone’s blame — and this is a testy, quick-to-anger group — none of the characters navigates the interracial minefield well.
But there’s a central problem: Brian’s research drives the slender plot, and I never got a handle on it because, even when he was supposed to be giving a lecture, he never came up with a clear summary of his findings. He seems to be saying that racism is somehow genetic in white people, “in the blood.” There’s plenty of research on the ways people of different races perceive each other, and some show what seems to be instinctive revulsion when whites see images of blacks. But why would this indicate a stronger genetic, rather than cultural-historical, cause or be specific to whites? Wouldn’t Arabs or black Africans show the same aversion to Caucasian images? And I can’t buy the idea that Brian’s professorship would be endangered by his work. Surely Harvard would respond to the implication that the university — like every other institution — is racist with a PR push instead of trying to force out a respected scientist.
In the end, it’s Valerie who provides the best response to Brian’s theorizing and the conundrum of race. Placing a hand over his mouth as he holds forth, she says quietly, “It’s more complicated than that.”
Smart People, presented by the Denver Center for the Performing Arts Theatre Company through November 19, Ricketson Theatre. Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, denvercenter.org.