A New York play about race in which a black man can’t control his temper and an Asian woman is obsessed with shopping and sleeping around offers more irreverence than one expects on the boards. Moreover, Smart People, by Lydia R. Diamond (The Tony Kiser Theatre on West 43rd Street through March 6) aims mostly to make its points via light comedy rather than through didacticism or portentousness. It’s an enjoyable evening off-Broadway, a thoughtful and frequently witty look at race-related mores that is more playful than angry.
Joshua Jackson, a star of several television series including Dawson’s Creek, plays Brian, a cognitive science professor at Harvard in 2007 whose professional mission is a simple one: he seeks to prove “all white people are racist,” a thesis Diamond handles in a somewhat surprising (albeit ultimately misleading) way. The other three characters are also Cambridge intellectuals, all of them people of color, a phrase these four (like their real-life counterparts) cherish. Ginny (Anne Son), an Asian-American psychologist, meets Brian at a dull-sounding faculty diversity meeting for which, in any case, no one else turns up. Their introductions are priceless. “Brian,” says the cognitive scientist, pausing to add his surname: “White.” “Ginny. Half-Japanese, half-Chinese,” replies the psychologist, whose classroom lectures fuss over notions of “identity” and “cultural expectations.” One such expectation, she believes, is that Asian-American women are promiscuous. She allows that she “sleeps around, but because I’m a slut, not because I’m Asian.”
Mahershala Ali (a regular on House of Cards) plays a black surgeon named Jackson whose patient, a struggling young black actress named Valerie (Tessa Thompson), presents with a cut on her face. He asks her whether she’s been beaten by a partner, and to her this is a mild affront. She isn’t the sort of ghetto trash who has abusive boyfriends, and she is at pains to explain she suffered the cut in a routine accident.
On Diamond goes, running through a litany of racially-loaded situations she commendably tweaks for laughs. Brian and Jackson are friends and often play basketball together. Should white Brian White be exorbitantly proud of having topped his black pal at one-on-one? Is it even conceivable that this ordinary-looking professor could best the tall and muscular doctor? When Brian inquires delicately whether Jackson let him win, Jackson replies tersely, “Look at me.” One of them looks like he would be at home on the floor of the Boston Garden during a Celtics game, and it isn’t poor Brian. In another scene, Ginny, who becomes Brian’s girlfriend, teases him and his supposed expectations about her sexuality by slipping into the persona of a prostitute speaking broken English and performs a sexual act on him. He begs her to stop, but not for long. In the air around the cast is the rise of Barack Obama, for whom Valerie does some canvassing, only to be nonplussed when a female voter asserts that Hillary Clinton’s sex trumps Obama’s race as a signifier on socio-historical importance.
Diamond is more friendly than dismissive of her well-meaning liberal quartet, but she is alert to the tripwire sensitivities of today’s campus identity politics, implicitly suggesting that perhaps we could all use a breather from incessant worries about privilege, marginalization, and all of the rest of the dire buzzwords that are supplanting every other kind of conversation and turning Ph. D.-holding eminences grises into cringing, blanching apologists. Just this week Harvard announced it was withdrawing the term “house master” because students acting like the townsfolk in The Crucible were pretending to be hurtfully reminded of the slavery that ended 150 years ago.
Diamond, being a black woman herself, has a license to be somewhat mocking of political-correctness pieties, and her primary targets are smug progressives, but in the end she does prove sadly receptive to the idea that white privilege still commands the strategic high ground over racial sensitivity. Though the play, directed by Kenny Leon, doesn’t have much storytelling momentum—it’s more like a collection of sketches based around one awkward assumption or another—it does hit a mildly climactic point when we learn that Brian’s research has caused a rift between him and the Harvard establishment. Though Brian and Jackson have an engaging argument about the nature of his research—he thinks he has proven that racism occurs at such a cellular level that cultural cues are irrelevant, while Jackson frets that this approach lets society off the hook—Smart People ultimately concludes that for a scientist to assert that racism is deeply ingrained in us is far too controversial not to be suppressed. Clear-eyed observers of the recent campus follies at Harvard, Yale, the University of Missouri, and elsewhere would no doubt counter that there is no more direct path to ivory-tower glory than making a breakthrough in racism detection. Far from being ostracized for calling everyone an automatic racist, Brian would likely find himself becoming the Harvard faculty’s brightest star.