Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Connecticut & the Berkshires

Smart People
Long Wharf Theatre
Review by Fred Sokol | Season Schedule

Also see Zander's review of My Fair Lady


Tiffany Nichole Greene and Sullivan Jones
Photo by T. Charles Erickson
Lydia R. Diamond's Smart People, continuing at Long Wharf Theatre through April 9th, tackles the issue of race with specificity, smarts, wry comedy, and, oftentimes, biting dialogue. Four well-educated, highly opinionated characters take this show directly to its Stage II audience through Desdemona Chiang's fast-paced direction. Taking place between 2007-2009 as Barack Obama assumed and began his presidency, this Cambridge, Massachusetts-based play strikes, with alacrity, many a chord.

Actress Tiffany Nichole Greene plays Valerie Johnston, an African-American young woman who recently completed Harvard's ART program, and now auditions for Portia in Julius Caesar. Watch her priceless facial expressions as, early on, she responds to a director's advisories.

Jackson Moore (embodied by Sullivan Jones) is a black man at Harvard Medical School who specializes in neurosurgery. He carries a hefty figurative chip on his shoulder, feeling, with good reason, that his path toward becoming a physician is filled with obstacles. These barriers have much to do with his race. Valerie and Jackson meet when she sustains a gash on her forehead and he stitches her wound. This is not a basic patient and doctor interface. Jackson believes, too, in community and puts in hours at the local clinic. He and Valerie boldly tangle on a couch; their relationship is, to understate, complicated.

Ginny Yang (Ka-Ling Cheung) is Asian-American and a psychology professor who teaches and counsels Asian women, many of whom are graduate students. She is strong, drawn to, of all things, shopping, and definitely moving forward. The lone Caucasian male in the cast is Brian White (Peter O'Connor), an embattled Harvard teacher who specializes in neuroscience and psychiatry. He is a prolific researcher and actually says, "I want to prove all whites are racist." His temper tends to flare. Brian White (yes, this is his surname) and Ginny Yang, both of whom educate students at Harvard, have their own sexual moment. Meanwhile, Brian is not especially kind to some of his students—and he has an issue with a dean as well.

The repartee throughout Smart People is swift whether the dialogue is direct, caustic, witty or ironic. This playwright makes statements through her characters. Their conversations are contemporary and sometimes confrontational. Some scenes say reams through implication. A few times, for example, Brian and Jackson sit after playing one-on-one basketball at the gym, and explore. At one point, Brian wonders, aloud, whether he was allowed to win their little contest. Jackson's gesture says it all.

Long Wharf's second stage includes a rectangular performing area. Everyone looks, constantly, at the proceedings. There isn't any escape. Patrick Lynch, designing, avoids clutter and the performers rapidly move into short scenes and then out of the way.

When it comes to racial identity in this country, do many white people carry an implicit bias? Smart People confronts theatergoers with the loaded, pertinent question. Further, are we able to look within ourselves and modify if not absolutely change our positions and attitudes? People's words and behavior, when it comes to race, are sometimes at odds.

Diamond writes lively, colloquial dialogue and the Long Wharf four-person ensemble is both tuned in and instantly credible. The quality production tosses the brimming, burning matter fully at its audience. The play begins with individual monologues before the characters mix it up with one another. Watching the show is not an easy or light experience. It is, however, a well-articulated play and precisely enacted. At one juncture, you might very well be thinking: enough. No easy answers through the course of these two hours.

Smart People continues at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut, through April 9th, 2017. For tickets, call (203) 787-4282 or visit longwharf.org .


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