While some people struggle with racial issues every day, other people have the leisure to study them. In the production of Smart People, the audience peers into the lives of four educated individuals who are all interacting with race in their own way. Some of these characters live a privileged life, while the other characters struggle with racism and stereotyping in their lives. Although this production touches upon important issues that are still prevalent in our society, Smart People decides to not go in depth with the discussion of racism, and instead keeps it as a nice conversation.
If you do decide to see the show, go for the acting. The techniques used by the four actors are impressive and have great chemistry together. During the scenes of love and friendship, Ginny (Anne Son), Valerie (Tessa Thompson), Jackson (Mahershala Ali) and Brian (Joshua Jackson) each have their own ways of dealing with racial issues and navigating through life. They bring comedy to the stage as well as serious and intimate issues that helps the audience follow along with their ongoing struggle of keeping their humanity in academic settings.
Director Kenny Leon does a great job of allowing each actor to have their own moment to shine without making any of the characters seem secondary. With the right timing, the overlapping of conversations becomes one coherent conversation that is entertaining to watch.
Playwright Lydia R. Diamond has an interesting way of approaching the conversation of race and education in Smart People. Diamond creates a space where the audience is separated and detached from the characters on stage. The characters are never allowed to speak to the audience and the characters cannot share any of their inner thoughts. Instead, the audience must rely on the conversations that the characters have with each other or with the people who are not on the stage. When the characters are having multiple conversations at once, Diamond beautifully overlaps the conversations in order to make them sound as if their conversations are intertwining.
These conversations do not really discuss the racist remarks that occur throughout the play. It is up to the audience to decide whether a remark is racist or not. The audience can decide to not think about the comment at all or decide if the other person was just overreacting. The audience is also not asked to reflect upon their own lives and there is nothing in the performance that challenges the audience to interact with the characters. With this type of structure, there is no climax to the play, and no way of knowing where the play is going to lead the audience. This leaves theatergoers sitting in their seats not wondering what will happen next. Instead, the audience can leisurely watch without feeling as if they have to engage or have an opinion about the scenes that unfolds before them.
When the audience walks into the theater, it appears as if they are walking into a lecture hall on their first day of college. With scenes constantly changing, set designer Riccardo Hernandez does an amazing job at having smooth and easy transitions by keeping the set minimalistic and having most of the set pieces on sliding flats. On the other hand, the projections are slightly helpful in identifying the characters’ locations but seem subpar in comparison to the acting and set. Lighting designer Jason Lyons made great choices in having the primary lighting be in sharp and crisp squares. The lighting added character to the stage—especially when only one actor is speaking in the direction of the audience.
Overall, there are a few powerful moments that occur in the play that address racism and sexism in our society. The play is a great example of how powerful actors can play diverse characters that challenge boundaries and stereotypes. However, the play does not fully take on racism and how academia is challenging these stereotypes.
Smart People runs until March 6 at the Tony Kiser Theatre (305 West 43th St. between 8th and 9th Aves.) in Manhattan. Tickets range from $60-$125. To purchase tickets, call 212-246-4422 or visit 2st.com.