This show about race is one of the most stimulating productions of the season

Lydia R. Diamond's Smart People addresses race in America.

Jackson (Kwesi Ameyaw) and Valerie (Katrina Reynolds) negotiate a bloody first meeting in Smart People.

Mitch and Murray Productions consistently produces some of the smartest shows in town. This one is called Smart People.

Lydia R. Diamond has set her 2016 play in and around Harvard in 2007 and 2008 during the run-up to Barack Obama’s first election. It’s about race and it is appropriately complicated.

The play’s white guy, Brian White—yep—who is, interestingly, the play’s pivotal character, is a cognitive neuroscientist who lectures at Harvard. He’s up for tenure, but there’s a problem: his goal is to prove that all white people are racist and he’s getting close to doing just that. Brian is investigating the possibility of an innate predisposition to racism, and his stats on brain activity, oxygenation of the blood, and so on are adding force to his thesis. Harvard liberals liked Brian when he was a colourful iconoclast, but they’re less keen on him now that the iconoclast has an arsenal, and he’s aiming it at them.

Brian sincerely wants to address racism and his framing is resonant. “I’m not being altruistic,” he says, “but it smells and I live here.” Brian can also be an arrogant prick, condescending to anyone who isn’t as well armed statistically and intellectually.

Brian meets his match in psychologist Ginny Yang. Ginny tenderly encourages a clinical client named Akiko to find ways to make herself heard in the dominant culture. Ginny herself speaks the language of capitalism fluently, browbeating people of lower status as she indulges her shopping habit.

As Ginny and Brian gingerly attempt to negotiate a romance, so do Valerie and Jackson, who are both African American. Valerie bridles when she goes to an emergency room because she’s cut her forehead on a theatrical flat—“Seriously, what does a black woman have to do to convince you guys that she hasn’t been beaten?”—but she also assumes that the young black doctor treating her must be an orderly or a nurse. That intern, Jackson, is precariously successful. He reacts with fury to racism at work, and, in his romantic life, he is terrified of being financially objectified.

In Act 1, playwright Diamond explores variations on her theme of race in a series of lovely miniatures—short scenes and monologues—but don’t look for a lot of narrative momentum. There’s more of that in Act 2 when the characters’ lives really start to overlap.

Aaron Craven is playing Brian and this is some of the best work I’ve seen him do. In Craven’s characterization, Brian is so self-contained that you almost expect him to have his own weather system, but he gazes out of that isolation yearningly at his girlfriend Ginny and his best friend Jackson. Craven nails Brian’s fury in both its righteous and entitled manifestations.

I also particularly enjoyed the many colours of Kwesi Ameyaw’s performance as Jackson, including the tenderness Jackson shows when he is talking to his mom and the feral threat that bursts out when he’s addressing a more problematic family member. Because Ameyaw exposes the vulnerability beneath Jackson’s bluster, his is the character I felt the most invested in emotionally.

On opening night, Trisha Collins struggled a bit with the script’s tricky rhythms, but, otherwise, she has polished Ginny’s veneer. And Katrina Reynolds brings welcome shades of softness to Valerie, the script’s most uncertain figure.

There’s lots of humour in this play. This might not strike many as a knee-slapper, but my favourite line comes from Ginny when she first meets Brian at a meeting about inclusion. Explaining why she rarely attends such events, she says, “I’m uncomfortable celebrating my marginalization with other disgruntled marginalized people.”

Especially in the current political climate, Smart People is also poignant, especially when it touches on Obama’s candidacy. Emerging from the skirmishes of the text and, in contrast to the horrors of the Trump administration, America’s embrace of Obama feels like a lost dream.

SMART PEOPLE By Lydia R. Diamond. Directed by David Mackay. Presented by Mitch and Murray Productions at Studio 16 on Friday, November 3. Continues until November 18.

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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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