Friday, August 6, 2021

In Monument Theatre Company's new show, 'Smart People' confront frustration about race and identity

In her intense, lengthy drama "Smart People"— relieved though it is by drollery, some of it satirical — Lydia Diamond seems to have gotten overwhelmed by "representation," as if her four characters had run away with her in detailing the core and outgrowths of American racism.

Academic understanding: Ginny and Brian get acquainted.
Seen on opening night Thursday, Monument Theatre Company has put on the Fonseca Theatre stage a challenging work. It  keeps being thought-provoking and emotionally engaging, perhaps too bulkily, all the way through the final scene. That epilogue reminds us of the play's historical context: the successful presidential campaign leading to the inauguration of Barack Obama as the nation's 44th president. The inflated promise of that event as heralding post-racism serves as a kind of shrewd commentary on the main action — the tortured relationships and identity struggles of four smart young people, two black, one white, and one Asian-American.

In a recent slang expansion of the word, you represent when you put forward your authentic identity, despite temptation and explicit pressure to hide it. It seems to have arisen from black culture to remind people not to shed their backgrounds, but rather affirm and express them. Meanwhile, you have to honor contrary pressure to find "time to prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet," to quote "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," a T.S. Eliot poem that continues to resonate with questing young adults.

The agendas that result from the warning to represent imply that none of us is well-advised to
discard our influences, even when some of them become outdated or unfashionable. What shapes Brian White, who receives the play's main focus, is his lofty status of highly "evolved" white-skin privilege. He tries to atone for that by demonstrating scientifically that white people are programmed to be racist. Holding on to Ivy League academic status in light of such a finding has resulted in career-imperiling controversy, which casts a toxic shadow over his personal life as well.

A young black doctor deals with obstacles.
Ours is a hard environment in which to have allyship credentials confirmed, and Professor White's struggle is disorienting. But so is the struggle of nonwhites to find places for themselves when they may well have what it takes to rise above marginalization. It dogs Jackson Moore, a young doctor called on the carpet for making an independent medical decision in surgery; Ginny Yang, a fellow academic specializing in research on Asian-American women while resisting pigeonholing as white; and Valerie Johnston, an ambitious fledgling actor trying to rise above stereotyping even while having to support herself in housecleaning.

Under the direction of Rayanna Bibbs, the cast pours abundant energy into their roles, which seem constantly striving to give the show's large theme its due. That's why I began to wonder if Diamond allowed the characters to take over in the sense that novelists often like to talk about. This worked to the play's advantage and detriment at the same time. As much as the characters are individualized, at length they became representative to me — a little too much illustrations of the playwright's concerns. As the type stood out, the individual receded. Representation took over.

The actors were required to simulate real people as well as distinct positions in a society overstocked with racial and cultural norms and barriers. Those distinctions were signaled in the opening scene, a clutter of brief monologues whose significance couldn't be put together until the interaction got under way.

Valerie studies a script, but the script of her life is tougher.

As the focused scientist White looking into the cognitive basis of racial bias, Maverick Schmit displayed access to the credentialed researcher's articulate self-control as well as to a tangled self-consciousness that gave way to his explosiveness in the second act. The impersonation had a vivid contrast in Barbara Michele Dabney's blithe Valerie, who puts up a sunny front, knocking on doors for Obama as a sideline, while nurturing dreams of landing serious roles at considerable remove from her natural ebullience.

Jamaal McCray put across the irritated idealism, genuine but paper-thin when countered or thwarted, of a young black doctor making his way in a white-dominated profession. And Kim Egan brought edgy vitality to Ginny's studious assertiveness about her demographic identity, which is nicely counterpointed to her vanity in matters of fashion. 

The conflicts are complicated by the romantic involvements of Brian with Ginny, Jamaal with Valerie. The former liaison is clearly the more intense and consequential, a quality that was well brought off Thursday.  I sensed that more intimacy coaching was needed, though. One prematurely applied lighting cue didn't help, as the cast's efficient moving of props between scenes in one case got brightly illuminated before Egan and Schmit resumed their acting duties. 

Otherwise, the show seemed in good technical shape, despite the labored succession of short scenes and the growing entanglement of the characters with each other and with the play's overwhelming thematic content. Here's just one of "Smart People"'s points to ponder: If racism is indeed endemic to white people, individual responsibility to do anything about it nearly disappears. You can tell that this paradox about Brian's research annoys Jackson. You white people always find ways to let yourself off the hook, you imagine him thinking.

This brought to mind an offensive example of white racism I remember reading long ago. In Norman Mailer's brilliant but sometimes fatuous "Miami and the Siege of Chicago,"  a self-indulgent quasi-journalistic account of the 1968 national political conventions, the author says of Ralph David Abernathy's lateness to a scheduled press conference that, tired of waiting, he'd had his fill of hearing about the problems of black people. 

This seemed like a petty swipe even for a narcissist of Mailer's caliber. I wondered at the time if Mailer would have been as dismissive of the problems of white people (perhaps ramping up his identification as Jewish) if a goy dignitary had been annoyingly late to a press conference.  In the terms of "Smart People," such casual racism, not only the more virulent kind, would have to be counted as a natural outlet for the programmed white brain.

We all tend to bring up to ourselves what we don't like about our friends if they are way late to a meeting we had looked forward to. When they finally appear, all those little negative bits vanish, don't they? With someone we hardly know whom we can otherize, it becomes so easy to load blame for their lateness on their otherness. This may leave us with having to interpret racism as the channel into which all sorts of unrelated prejudices and dislikes most naturally run. So what's embedded may turn out to be the racialized interpretation of just about everything in a multiracial society. There are no reparations for that!

For my part, the character of Brian White eventually generated a Mailerian wave of disgust. I'd had about enough of hearing about the problems of white people, dressed up in science and anxious white privilege. Oddly enough, I offer this as a recommendation for seeing this production. If an old white guy finds the racialized application of science off-putting, such unwelcome knowledge remains almost compulsively inviting.

In this borderline exhausting, but generally well-executed, form, Monument Theatre's "Smart People" may be necessary tonic in the year of our sorrows, 2021. Healthful doses will be administered through next weekend.

[Photos by Chandra Lynch]

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