Lydia Diamond’s Smart People offers an advanced degree in race relations | Theater Review | Chicago Reader

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Lydia Diamond’s Smart People offers an advanced degree in race relations

All allusions to Ibsen are just a bonus.


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L ast week I opened a review by calling An Enemy of the People the current Ibsen of choice, given the number of productions and adaptations it's fostered in Chicago over the last few months. I had no idea how right I was. You know what Lydia R. Diamond's latest, Smart People, turns out to be? That's correct.

Diamond has updated the material to the late aughts (specifically 2007-'09, the two years leading up to Barack Obama's inauguration) and turned it to her own trenchant uses—uses made vivid in Hallie Gordon's staging for Writers Theatre. But An Enemy of the People is down there beneath the changes, all right. And the playwright lets us know the resemblance is intentional by putting one of her characters in an (offstage) mounting of the 1883 original.

If you were paying attention last week you know that Enemy concerns a middle-aged Norwegian physician named Thomas Stockmann, who discovers that toxins from upstream factories have leached into the water feeding the mineral baths crucial to his hometown's lucrative tourist trade. Stockmann starts crusading to get the baths shut down, cleaned up, and rebuilt with safety in mind. Spooked by the expense involved, the powers that be would rather shut down Stockmann. Fortunately for them, they've got a valuable ally in Stockmann himself. The doctor's arrogance and naivete, his stridency and inability to maintain a tactical silence guarantee that his causes will forever be lost.

The Stockmann figure in Smart People is the all too aptly surnamed Brian White (Erik Hellman), a "golden boy" Harvard neuroscientist whose research has led him to the conclusion that white folks have a literal hate center in their brains that, like it or not, makes them racist down to their DNA. He hasn't kept a tactical silence about these findings. In fact, we're told he put them into an op-ed that ignited a "race firestorm," made him an anti-celebrity, and pissed off his department chair, with the consequence that he's now a former golden boy teaching 100-level courses. Needless to say, his once generous funding has gone away.

Still, none of that has sobered him. Au contraire: opprobrium just makes him double down. Stockmann arrogant and Stockmann strident (Stockmann naive too, really, though he talks like he's been wised up), Professor White doesn't suffer fools gladly, and it appears to him that Harvard harbors a surprisingly high number of fools for such a prestigious institution. He scorns his students and talks, shall we say, impudently to the department chair, all the while wondering why they can't comprehend his genius. Along with everything else, he's Stockmann blind.

Not that he's completely isolated. True to her title, Diamond surrounds White with a few smart people. His basketball buddy is Jackson Moore (Julian Parker), a black, Harvard-trained medical doctor currently serving his surgical internship and stoking his own prodigious resentments. White's girlfriend, Ginny Yang (the fearless Deanna Myers), is an Asian-American, tenured psychology professor at Harvard who knows she's got to run twice as fast to stay ahead of her Caucasian colleagues and has therefore turned herself into a zeitgeist-catching machine at the expense of anything resembling a human affect. Ginny keeps her ever-mounting stress at bay through sex and clothes buying. (Some of the sharpest scenes in this sharp piece of work show her verbally annihilating sales clerks.) Finally, there's Valerie Johnston (Kayla Carter), a black actress with an MFA from Harvard's American Repertory Theatre, supporting herself by sorting index cards for White. As thoroughly acculturated as any Ivy League great-grandchild of European immigrants, Valerie nevertheless finds herself having to act black—or, more accurately, a conception of black—at depressingly funny auditions.

Best known as the author of Stick Fly, which centers on a family of affluent African-Americans, Diamond knows her way around the preoccupations of elites and the anxieties of minorities, and how distorted life can become for those with a foot in both worlds. Jackson, Ginny, and Valerie speak the language of privilege without the sense of security privilege is supposed to afford them—though, interestingly, considering the political history of the last nine years, Diamond allows them (and us) a glimpse of something better just as Obama is being sworn in.

Brian, meanwhile, is fighting his way off the mountaintop, one self-destructive, suspect thesis at a time. The particular form his rebellion takes says a lot about his own demons, at which Diamond, Gordon, and Hellman give us a long, hard, humiliating look late in the play. Smart People ends with an image as, well, powerfully abject as any I've seen in years.   v

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