APT Review: ‘Smart People’ takes on race, sexuality, status

Nicole Hansen, Intern

The issues of race and sexuality are ones that often spark strong feelings and heavy debates amongst many people across the world. These issues are, and have always been, pertinent topics to discuss and understand, especially now, as the world is becoming a more diverse, and hopefully, welcoming place. With this in mind, I was excited to watch the American Players Theatre’s performance of Lydia R. Diamond’s play, “Smart People” directed by Melisa Pereyra. This will be the last piece in their “Out of the Woods” series. Focusing on the issues of race, socio-economic status, sexuality, and identity as a whole, Diamond pieces together short scenes involving a variety of characters, as well as monologues, sometimes simultaneously. Working with the limitations posed by the Zoom format, elements such as reading stage directions aloud, adding sound effects and showing maps to set the scene, allows the audience to make sense of the direction of the play.

The story takes place in Cambridge, Massachusetts, specifically on or around the Harvard University campus between the years 2007 and 2009. The narrative of this play uses elements of comedy to drive the otherwise stark, yet meaningful interactions between these Harvard intellectuals. This play is performed by a diverse cast and explores the issues encountered on a daily basis by minority groups. Some of the issues discussed in the play surround the politics behind Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, and the reactions of different members of the Harvard class on these issues. Although these issues specifically concern the events of the past, the themes are still just as relevant today, making this play just as impactful now as it was then.

APT describes the plot, saying, “Just before Obama’s first election, four of Harvard University’s brightest – a surgeon, an actress, a psychologist and a neuropsychiatrist – struggle with a society that considers itself “post-racial,” and is all too often proven wrong. Jackson, Valerie, Ginny and Brian are all interested in different aspects of the brain, particularly in how it responds to race. But they’re also on a quest for love, success and identity in their own lives. A fiercely funny play about social and sexual politics.”

This play depicts the daily lives, and issues encountered by the four characters: Brian White, a white Harvard professor and “neuropsychiatrist”; Ginny Yang, an Asian-American Harvard psychology professor; Valerie Johnston, a black actress; and Jackson Moore, a black intern at Harvard Medical School.Within the context of this play, conversations surrounding race and sexuality are specifically highlighted in a way that allows the verbalization of these dynamics to be discussed within everyday interactions. These scenes open a window for the audience to see the prejudice that minorities encounter on a daily basis.

While the use of sound effects, such as the ticking clock, ringing of phones, and bells help to symbolize time, mood, and location, they can also be a bit distracting at times. The way in which the play is organized is also a bit confusing, as its pieced-together set up can feel very scattered and tends to jump around a lot. Meanwhile, the reading of stage directions was utilized well in order to establish the context and events of the play, which the audience would have likely gotten lost in without.  

After watching the first two installments of American Players’ Theatre’s “Out of the Woods” series, I was excited to see the finale, and it did not disappoint. If you have enjoyed their previous performances, or just enjoy stories about once separate worlds colliding, I recommend this as a way to reminisce back to the times which seemed simple now, but at the time were anything but. This play is now available at http://www.pbswisconsin.org/apt joining the prior performances “The Sins of Sor Juana” and “Nat Turner in Jerusalem” through 12/31.