The long awaited Smart People at Arena Stage tackles issues of race and gender stereotypes from the viewpoint of four distinctly different people, each serving as a kind of archetype of history and lineage. Lydia Diamond who penned the well-received Stick Fly sets up each of her characters in separate monologues in the first act, and after a while one wonders if and how a story will emerge. It does. Eventually.
Brian and Ginny are a couple with no idea that Valerie and Jackson, who they’re trying to introduce to each other, had a one-night fling that ended badly. What starts off as a personally awkward dinner party ends up with everyone thrashing through personal and polemic positions. The interchange is engaging and fresh, rolling through class distinctions, embedded bias, stereotypes, expectations, micro-abrasions and outrage, all covered within a quartet of friends, acquaintances and could almost be lovers. The banter between the characters at the tipsy” let it all hang out” gathering shows Diamond at her best when non-censored lines are unleashed, the characters bristle, lash out, retreat, realign forces, then come back, aim and fire their best shots, often with hilarious results.
Diamond takes a fearless approach in her dialogue that can leave audience members gasping in disbelief wondering did that character really just say that?
It’s fun watching three Washington D.C. natives tackle this dynamic material under Seema Sueko’s masterful direction.
Lorene Chesley as budding actress Valerie Johnston is a bundle of energy and brings excitement to every utterance with drive, passion and crisp clear gorgeous articulation. She freeforms into various characters during an audition process including a hilarious bit taking on tough urban street lingo and mannerisms. Through it all, Chesley brings a respect to the intention for her actions, including her encounter with Jackson Moore, a surgeon in the emergency room.
Jaysen Wright shows the various sides of the accomplished surgeon who can unleash a torrent of anger from the castigation he’s fought his way through to the upper echelon of medical accomplishment. The path was not easy and he’s got the scars to show it. Through it all, Wright relays an underlying sensitivity to Jackson who keeps tripping over his own emotional baggage when lurching towards his own happiness. Watching Wright’s portrayals over the years has been a joy.
closes May 21, 2017
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The same with Sue Jin Song as Ginny Yang who has been hitting the boards in the Washington area with exuberance, bringing a distinctive energy to what could be stock Asian characters. Yang’s tenured professor is so immersed in her psych research and disdains anything “celebrating her marginalization” that she has no time or interest in anything else, until she sees a slim possibility of maybe a glimmer of happiness.
Gregory Perri joins the talented ensemble as Brian White, a determined researcher with a premise that is difficult to even express without tumbling into non-PC purgatory. White is determined to prove that there are neurological factors involved in racism using brain scans, cellular studies and even a wired up head piece contraption to get to the root of the issues. Perri brings his considerable experience to a character who treasures cultural diversity and is so fixated and determined to find a solution that he’s a powder keg of righteousness ready to blow up.
Once the characters are established in act 1, they roar into Lydia Diamond’s sweet spot territory– that dinner gathering where wine and banter bring all their sundry issues to a head.
There’s a lot there, and as such, conceptually, the overall flow of Smart People tries to tackle so many different issues skimming along the surface that it feels unanchored and scattered. There are enormous irreconcilable differences being bandied about with a sit-com like pace feeling that things could be resolved if we could extend just beyond the next commercial break. Through it all, there is a bravery and fearlessness in shining light on egregious misperceptions and stereotypes that don’t usually emerge in “mixed” company. Hats off to Diamond for broaching issues that are usually tucked so far under the rug never to see the light of day.
The set by Misha Kachman consists of two level tiers of squares that comfortably frame any action in play, and each can be lit and colored to reflect the mood being portrayed within. The clever set design also serves as a huge platform screen where towards the finale, footage of the 2009 Inaugural is supposed to remind us of hopeful times that promised change, and progress. But the images spliced onto unresolved issues, feel more like sentimental tagged on afterthoughts, and are a bitter reminder of today’s topsy turvy dark reality.
Smart People is a step in the right direction in piercing through the comfortable veneer of polite conversation to get serious talk flowing, even uncomfortable ones. It’s not strong enough to break down any walls yet, but it shows how we still need each other to keep pushing forward together.
Smart People by Lydia R. Diamond . Directed by Seema Sueko . Cast: Lorene Chesley; Gregory Perri; Sue Jin Song’ Jaysen Wright . Lighting Design – Xavier Pierce . Set Design—Misha Kachman . Costume Design–Dede M. Ayite . Sound Designer—Andre Pluess . Projection Designer Jared Mezzocchi . Stage Manager—Kurt Hall . Produced by Arena Stage . Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson.