Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Smart People at Studio 16

Currently I'm reading Ta-Nahisi Coates' newest book, We Were Eight Years in Power. A collection of several of the essays he wrote for The Atlantic during Barack Obama's two terms in the White House, it is a sobering account of the brief window of racial possibility that was opened in the US with the election of the country's first African-American president, but even more so of the accompanying retrenchment of the forces of white supremacy that then paved the way for Obama's replacement in the Oval Office by Donald Trump. Drawing on the sweep of American history, as well as pop culture and his own personal experience, Coates lays bare in at once measured and urgently impactful tones that the US will always be a racially divided country until it comes to grips with the fact that its very foundations (politically, ideologically, economically) are based on slavery and the violent suppression of one race by another, and that this fact continues to inform every aspect of American society.

Coates' book is useful supplementary reading to Mitch and Murray's production of Lydia R. Diamond's play Smart People, directed by David Mackay and running at Studio 16 through this Saturday. The play, while written in 2016, is set in 2007-January 2009, spanning the period from Obama's announcement of his presidential candidacy to his inauguration. Diamond gives us a cross-sectional snapshot of race relations in Cambridge, Massachusetts during this period by focusing on four highly accomplished professionals. Two of them work at Harvard. Brian (Aaron Craven) is a white liberal neurobiologist who claims to have hard scientific data proving that white peoples' brains are genetically hardwired to hate black people. At a faculty meeting on diversity Brian meets Ginny (Tricia Collins), an Asian-American psychologist who studies the internalization of stereotypes by young Asian-American women, some of whom she also privately counsels. The two other characters are both graduates of Harvard and are also both black. Jackson (Kwesi Ameyaw) is a surgical resident chafing under the paternalistic mentorship of his white hospital superiors, while also running his own clinic in a predominantly Asian-American/mixed ethnic neighbourhood. He meets Valerie (Katrina Reynolds), an MFA graduate in acting whose classical training comes up against the limits of colour blind casting, when she visits the clinic to receive stitches after an accident during rehearsal. The play is loosely structured around the progress, or lack thereof, of the two couples' relationships. Along the way, we see Ginny visit Jackson's clinic to make a case for recruiting participants for her research; we witness Valerie take a job as a research assistant for Brian in order to earn additional rent money; and we learn that Brian and Jackson are old friends who like to shoot hoops together. However, all four characters don't come together and sort out their intersecting ties to each other until the penultimate scene, a dinner party at Brian and Ginny's. Crucially, this is also where we learn that even among this rainbow collection of educated, progressive people, those ties do not and cannot supersede race. Brian by this point has lost his bid for tenure, Harvard only having so much tolerance for his proof of its institutional racism. When the other three people of colour at the table try to make him understand that his research represents not so much a solution to the scourge of white supremacy as a threat to the ways in which it continues to flourish by invisibilzing its claims to majority power, Brian proves this very point with his own racist outburst.

Diamond is herself a very smart playwright. Her script trades in some complex, hot-button issues, but it never feels like she is hectoring the audience, or scoring points off of her characters, all of whom she portrays as richly complex and sympathetic, even the hapless Brian. Mackay has elicited superb performances from the entire ensemble; you can tell the actors are really enjoying sinking their teeth into Diamond's fast-paced and meaty dialogue, especially the many comic barbs, and there is palpable chemistry emanating from the stage. That said, I did find the mostly episodic structure of the play a bit of a spectating challenge, with the succession of short, sharp scenes punctuated by blackouts a bit visually wearying. Mackay resolves this structural issue somewhat by staging this production in the round, with the four points of access allowing for swift actor-driven transitions, while also suggesting that a shared arena is both materially and metaphorically perhaps the most apt container for the bloodsport that is race in America. Still, I wondered if we needed all of the moving on and off of furniture between the scenes, or even the multiple blackouts; perhaps having some of the scenes overlap spatially and temporally would have aided in structural continuity. And depending on one's position in the audience, it can be challenging to see some important stage business. Richard and I, for instance, did not learn [SPOILER ALERT!] that Brian had hooked himself up to the heart rate monitor attached to his computer in the final scene--in which the other characters separately report on Obama's inauguration ceremony--until Richard Wolfe (who was seated in another section) told us what was happening in the cab ride home.

But that is a minor criticism. This is stellar production of an incredibly timely play, one that in using Obama's election as the social and political background to its dramaturgy ends up foregrounding the problems with Donald Trump being given free reign on the world stage.


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