Arena Stage investigates America's recent past.
Playwright Lydia R. Diamond takes on the issue of racism in contemporary America in her provocative Smart People, currently being given a first-rate production at Arena Stage. Smart People takes place in various locations in Cambridge, Massachusetts, from 2007 to 2009, ending with President Obama's inauguration. Its characters include four savvy young professionals who are looking for love, acceptance, and good careers as the play dissects their ability to get along with each other and with the world.
One of those characters is an African-American woman named Valerie Johnston, an actress who is first seen playing Brutus's wife in Julius Caesar. She considers acting her real career, the way she contributes to society, but she also cleans houses and signs up for random medical tests at Harvard University in order to make her rent. Valerie's main emotion is frustration, whether at the lack of good acting roles or the number of doors that are slammed in her face when she campaigns for Obama.
One of the people she works for is Brian White, a white neurobiologist studying the human brain's response to racial differences. His theory is that white people have a "predisposition to hate" people of other races. He dreams of being given a MacArthur grant so he can do research in peace without the pesky burden of having to teach.
Brian crosses paths with Ginny Yang, a brilliant Asian-American psychology professor who is doing research on second generation Asian-American women. Although Ginny seems to be a perfect young woman, she has a serious flaw: She is a serial shopper and fills the emptiness in her life with compulsive buying. She tells Brian that she doesn't date, yet they begin seeing each other on a regular basis.
Jackson Moore, an African-American Harvard surgical intern, would seem to be a perfect man. He and some friends run a clinic for people with no insurance. Jackson and Valerie meet when she comes to Massachusetts General Hospital to have a gash in her forehead sewn up. Jackson, like the rest of the characters, also has a flaw: He is a hothead who always tells people, even his bosses, the truth. When he performs an operation and then tries to defend his right to do it, he is punished for it and can't see anything but his side of the story.
As Valarie, Lorene Chesley is a dynamic comedian. She energizes a role that is full of quips and lighthearted comments about sociology. She is the main reason that the play, which is otherwise full of talk, seems to be a comedy instead of a college lecture on anthropology and race. The most credible scenes in the play are those shared by Valerie and Jackson, the two characters who have the most in common. Sue Jin Song is entertaining as Ginny, a woman who lives in an unrealistic bubble of research and teaching. When she does meet directly with a psychology patient, she has a hard time connecting to the young woman. Song demonstrates nicely the narrowness of Ginny's worldview and the shallowness of her soul.
Jaysen Wright turns in a strong performance as Jackson, the near-perfect specimen of a doctor, basketball player, and humanitarian. Wright sensitively shows Jackson's inability to be humble. Jackson is a man who knows he is good and refuses to pretend to be anything else. Gregory Perri's performance as Brian is not quite as convincing. Like Jackson, Brian speaks his mind, often denigrating his students and his superiors. But Perri seems to be inhabiting only the head of his character, not the whole person.
Seema Sueko deftly directs the play so that scenes tumble quickly, one after another. Lighting designer Xavier Pierce aids that rhythm by providing blackouts at the end of each scene. Misha Kachman's modern set is a two-level, neon-lit plexiglass structure, allowing the actors to use the upper level as a balcony so two different play spaces can be utilized at the same time. Costume designer Dede Ayite dresses the characters according to their social class: At the beginning of the play, Valerie wears jeans and inexpensive clothes. By the end of the play, she has changed her style. Ginny's style stays as consistent as her character, wearing expensive clothes and shoes throughout.
Although Diamond's primary interest is with the issue of race in America, she also spends plenty of energy crafting characters who can speak to class and identity as well. The fact that Smart People is a comedy is just icing on the cake.