Smart People time travels back to Obama-era race politics

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      By Lydia R. Diamond. Directed by David Mackay. A Mitch and Murray production in association with Anne Marie Deluise at Studio 16 on November 4. Continues until November 18

      Remember J. Philippe Rushton? I do. I had just finished my degree at the University of Western Ontario when the tenured psychology prof gained notoriety in the late 1980s for his “research” linking race to intelligence and crime. Western eventually suspended his teaching privileges, but he continued to publish.

      Twenty years later, on the eve of Barack Obama’s first election, we meet Brian White, the Harvard researcher at the heart of Smart People. White (yup) is also studying race, but with a very different motivation: he’s a white liberal who wants to use neuroscience to prove that all white people are genetically programmed to mistrust and fear darker-skinned people. (It’s never clear what he thinks proving this will actually accomplish.) Brian gets romantically involved with a colleague, Ginny, a tenured Asian American whose research and clinical practice focus on empowering Asian women. He also shoots hoops with an old friend, Jackson, a black medical resident, and hires a black actor named Valerie to help with clerical work in his office.

      Playwright Lydia R. Diamond introduces us to all four characters at the top of the script; in David Mackay’s in-the-round staging, each occupies a separate corner of the playing area. We see Valerie struggling in rehearsal, Brian haranguing a class of undergraduates, Ginny giving a conference presentation, and Jackson being disciplined at work. The word these monologues have in common is context, a concept central to Diamond’s multifaceted exploration of race politics.

      Stereotypes aren’t just fodder for research; they inform every interaction. When Jackson treats Valerie in the ER for a head wound sustained during rehearsal, she is exasperated by the suspicion her injury has aroused: “What does a black woman have to do to make you believe she hasn’t been beaten?” We later see the actor, who’s much more comfortable doing Shakespeare or Ibsen, at an audition, struggling to make “black English” sound convincing. When she tells Jackson that she’s volunteering for Obama, he is dismissive: “That’s your whole black card?” he asks.

      Ginny is just as complex: she may be living the stereotype of the Asian overachiever in her career, but she is far from submissive when dealing with retail clerks, for instance. This complexity allows the aptly named Diamond to stud the play’s dialogue with jewels of wit. “Tuna casserole carries no class or cultural implications,” says Valerie, defending a potluck contribution. When Brian explains his research to Valerie—“I want to prove that all white people are racists”—she retorts, “It’s pretty hot when a white guy says that.”

      That the characters are likable and engaging despite the fact that they’re all pretty arrogant and self-absorbed is a tribute to Mackay’s solid casting. Tricia Collins is convincingly in control as powerhouse Ginny, Kwesi Ameyaw wears Jackson’s frustration like a garment he can’t shed, and Katrina Reynolds gives an exquisitely textured performance as Valerie, finding all the humour and vulnerability in the script’s most fully developed character. Aaron Craven plays Brian as a nice guy convinced of the merits of his research, but doesn’t imbue him with the unapologetic charisma that the character seems to call for.

      In-the-round staging is an appropriate choice for a play that is constantly calling perspective into question, and David Roberts’s minimalist modular set allows for seamless transitions between locations. But the staging also means that no matter where you sit, there will be long chunks when you’re looking at someone’s back.

      Diamond’s text-heavy script gets a bit repetitive on the subject of Brian’s research (which is never entirely credible—at the top of the second act, Jackson points out some pretty obvious and major holes). But it’s a fascinating bit of time travel to watch all the characters believe that Obama has no chance of winning the election. Remember about a year ago, when none of us believed a certain candidate would win? And so the issue of race is at the forefront of American discourse again—in a much uglier, scarier way. I’m bracing myself for the next J. Philippe Rushton.