Smart People is a smart play with very smart dialogue that is both hilarious and thought-provoking about themes of racial and sexual politics that are ever present in our national psyche but never fully understood.

by Ann Marie Cusella

Smart People is now playing at the Ujima Theatre Co. through December 19, 2021.

A Very Smart Play

Smart People is a smart play with very smart dialogue that is both hilarious and thought-provoking about themes of racial and sexual politics that are ever present in our national psyche but never fully understood; themes that posit questions without simple answers and problems without simple solutions, and that trip up even the most learned and forward-thinking  women and men, not only in terms of global solutions but also when it comes to friendship and intimate relationships. In other words, it’s complicated.

Award winning playwright and professor Lydia R. Diamond, whose play Stick Fly ran on Broadway in 2011, presents a series of vignettes that gradually expose the gap between what her four characters desire and the reality of what they create given the fact that idealism often clashes with experience, and human programming and frailty.

The Players

Smart People takes place in Cambridge in the months leading up to the Obama election with four diverse characters who are all connected to Harvard and as the play unfolds, to each other. They are:

Ginny Yang, (Maria Ta) a tenured psychologist who is doing research on the effects of assimilation on young Asian women and is wound about as tight as a person can be. She is also heavily into shopping and sex as outlets to release some of that tension.

Professor Brian White, (Ben Caldwell) is, yes, white. He is a neuroscientist who has developed a study to gauge the brain activity of white people when they see images of people of color. His theory is that racism is a biological as well as social construct. It is his research that acts as the catalyst for what unfolds between the characters, and what consequences he faces with the academic powers-that-be. He and Ginny connect, much to her amazement.

Jackson Moore, (Brian Brown), is a young African American surgical resident at Mass General who is full of himself and fed up with the prejudice of his supposed mentors, while trying to care for his drug-addicted brother and heart-broken mother. He and Valerie connect and then… He is friends with Brian.

Valerie Johnston, (Cecelia Monica-Lyn), is an actress with an MFA from Harvard who cleans houses while she performs as Portia in Julius Caesar, and auditions for a play where she is typecast as the African American girl from the hood, when she planned to audition for the part of the social worker. She volunteers for the Obama campaign, goes door to door to elicit support for him and takes on the job of teaching assistant to Brian.

As these people interact with each other, the complexities of friendship and intimacy between races as well as between people of the same race are brought to the forefront with the backdrop of racism ever present and ever insidious. And it is really really funny.

Another Great Show

The actors do a fine job of it. Ben Caldwell as the beefy, earnest not-yet-tenured professor handles his convoluted scientific dialogue with aplomb and has a charming and sincere presence as he woos the very up-tight Ginny. Maria Ta looks and acts the part of the brilliant, driven Asian woman on her quest to be the best. Her deadpan comic timing is great fun. Brian Brown is hot and sharp as the sexy young doctor who is serious-minded and fed up with the prejudice he experiences. Cecilia Monica-Lyn’s idealistic and determined young actor also has some bite as she navigates sexual politics with the doctor.

At over two hours and twenty minutes, the play could be tighter and still pack the punch it does. The many scene changes between vignettes add to the length and somewhat interrupt the flow. These are minor quibbles in an otherwise excellent production.

Directed by Phil Knoerzer, Smart People is very well acted, stimulating, and entertaining every step of the way. It is sexy, intelligent, sharp, and very much for grown-ups.

Dates, Tickets and More Information

Smart People is playing at the Ujima Theatre Company until December 19, 2021.

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