Race and sex can be serious and entertaining among smart people



Julian Parker (Jackson Moore, MD), Kayla Carter (Valerie Johnston, Deanna Myers (Ginny Wang) and Erik Hellman (Brian White) in 'Smart People' at Writers Theatre. Photo by Michael Brosilow
Julian Parker (Jackson Moore, MD), Kayla Carter (Valerie Johnston), Deanna Myers (Ginny Wang) and Erik Hellman (Brian White) in ‘Smart People’ at Writers Theatre. Photo by Michael Brosilow

Do you sometimes assume that someone with the name of Goldstein is Jewish or that someone who is Asian has to be aggressive to be successful?

In ‘Smart People,’ now playing at Writers Theatre in Glencoe, playwright Lydia R. Diamond has four people, a black man, black woman, white man and an Asian woman, interact in Cambridge, MA. Both issue raised here did occur.

All are ‘smart people’ but they each encounter stereotypical problems with others and with each other when play and pursue their careers. The time is between 2007 and 2009 with the Barack Obama campaign and win in the background.

Harvard University neuroscientist Brian White (Erik Hellman) says he wants to improve race relations by explaining through his research that Caucasians’ brains are hard-wired to react in predictable ways to people who are not white. He can’t believe that he won’t get tenure even though he personally and publicly labels his students and deans as racists.

Black actress Valerie Johnston (Kayla Carter), a recent graduate who excels in Shakespearean roles, has problems with auditions that are not color-blind. She also resents all the questions directed at her about home and boyfriends when she sees a doctor and nurses about her bloody forehead. She keeps telling then she is an actress and injured her face when she walked into a stage set.

Black doctor, Jackson Moore (Julian Parker) meets resistance with his patient’s diagnosis and his attempts to continue in his field in a residency program. He doesn’t understand that Johnston really wants to pursue an acting career even if it means taking on housecleaning jobs to pay the rent.

Ginny Yang  (Deanna Myers), a tenured doctor of psychology who is Asian American with Chinese and Japanese roots, is smart but she comes across as arrogant and pushy. Somewhat addicted to shopping she has problems at stores that seem to lose her order or prefer cash.

Directed by Hallie Gordon, the acting is phenomenal and the minimal set design by Collette Pollard is perfect for Writers’ intimate Gillian Theatre black-box space.

I thought Diamond’s interaction between Johnston and Moore offered an interesting perspective on how blacks may see each other. But what bothered me were some of the play’s contrived stereotypes.

Julian Parker (Jackson Moore) and Kayla Carter (Valerie Johnston) in Smart People at Writers Theatre. Michael Brosilow photo
Julian Parker (Jackson Moore) and Kayla Carter (Valerie Johnston) in Smart People at Writers Theatre. Michael Brosilow photo

The actress seemed to come out best as to likeability even though her character nicely slips when mentioning the desirability of marriage to a rich doctor so as not to worry about rent.

Her problems with auditions would not be an issue with Chicago area theatre companies today. They go out of their way to be diverse. But that is not saying those problems wouldn’t be encountered elsewhere.

Moore seemed to have attitude issues but those might be excused by the mostly white audience present at the Writers’ production because they, as the saying goes, haven’t walked in his shoes.

However, Diamond did not paint Yang and White as likeable people. So, questions arise as to the assumptions made by them and attitudes toward them.

Even with those questions, ‘Smart People’ is a funny, thought-provoking show to see with others and discuss afterwards.

Due to sexual scenes and language, the play is for mature audiences.

DETAILS: ‘Smart People’ is at Writers Theatre,  325 Tudor Court, Glencoe, now through June 10, 2018.  Running time 2 hours, 20 minutes with intermission. For tickets and other information call (847) 242-6000 or visit Writers Theatre.

Jodie Jacobs

For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago


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