Review by Ed Cohn
The Kitchen Theatre opened its 2017-18 season this week with the play, Smart People, by Lydia R. Diamond, directed by Summer L. Williams.
This is The Kitchen’s first show with new artistic director, M. Bevin O’Gara, replacing Rachel Lampert’s run as director for over 20 years. O’Gara kept the tradition of a pre-show spiel – a nice way to get introduced to her.
Smart People has been touted as a comedy, though to me it was more a dramatic comedy. Comedies, in my view, are all about comedy, where it is present in every moment – the main element of the style. Dramatic comedies are dramas with comedic moments. These moments are more pointed and ironic than fall-down funny. I particularly like the dramatic comedy form, as it reflects life, which can be funny and serious almost simultaneously.
First impressions are made by the open, 3/4 in-the-round stage in this 99 seat theater. The set was sparse at most. The floor was painted with a rectangular pattern of outlined blue boxes, creating a grid. It was simple yet added color and visual interest. The rear wall of the stage was a backdrop of a collection of screens of different sizes and rectangular shapes set at right angles to each other – blue theme as well. These were used for projections that were expertly masked and focused – a technical feat. Both the projection and sound design, strong elements of the production, were expertly executed by Rasean Davonte Johnson, adding needed dimension to this relatively static, heavily scripted show.
And the script was indeed thick and deep. Each of the four characters had much to say, and all were indeed very smart people as Lydia Diamond apparently is as well. There is much jargon and depth and in this thought-provoking foray into the human psyche.
The play opens with each character independently introducing themselves through their character’s experience, gaining momentum and culminating with all four speaking over the other independently in a chaotic blast of verbiage. Whew.
The ensemble cast features Bryce Michael Wood as Jackson, an African-American surgical intern on rotation in one of the university’s teaching hospitals, Folami Williams as Valerie, an African-American who has recently graduated with her MFA in Acting and currently doing auditions, Jake Lee Smith as Brian, a Caucasian neuro-psychiatrist studying the brain’s response to race, and Shannon Tyo as Ginny, a Chinese-Japanese American who’s a tenured professor of psychology studying race and identity among Asian-American women. Three doctors and an actor.
There are a lot of stereotypes on display here. Wood’s Jackson as a surgical intern is what you’d expect – self-possessed, egotistical, angry, and frustrated, and at odds with the system and hierarchy, seeing racism as a factor in how how he is treated, and ultimately quits. The chip on his shoulder is almost visible. He is friends with Smith’s character, Brian, whose research leading to the conclusion that all white people are racist has caused him to fall out of favor with his colleagues and peers, being shunned and losing his funding. Brian and Jackson get “into it” and their friendship takes a big hit.
The female characters are equally familiar. Williams’ Valerie is an educated actor and while knowing black culture, is not really part of it, relating more to intellectual elitism. She meets Jackson in the emergency room for stitches after an accident on a set. They joust verbally and though their interaction is mostly confrontational, the attraction wins the day and culminates in an onstage lovemaking session that is steamy enough to add some hot spice to the production (if you’re into hunky black men then this is a must-see). But it ends badly – two smart people vying for power over the other.
Tyo’s Ginny is particularly stereotypical – a highly educated, sexually secure, highly pragmatic, very self assured Asian-American professional woman. In her work she meets with Brian to investigate his research. They “hook up”, but their relationship is fraught with tension. For my money Tyo’s portrayal was the richest on the stage, though all were more than competent.
By the play’s last scene all are brought together for a dinner party at Brian and Ginny’s where they have invited Jackson and Valerie to introduce them to each other not knowing that they had a previous tryst that ended badly. Things don’t go well.
The race issue calls for much discussion and reflection. In the end everyone reluctantly comes to expose their own deep racial biases. Again, the script is dense and hard to follow at times, but it is a worthwhile look at how racism is intrinsic. Yet there are plenty of humorous moments, and the audience had more than a few outbursts of laughter. The ironies abound.
Summer L. Williams’ direction was deftly delivered. Never getting in the way, but supporting the script well. There were enough movement and creative touches to bring life to this talky play.
Costuming by Lisa Boquist was appropriate and not distracting – each character dressed for his or her part.
Tyler M Perry’s lighting and stage design coordinated very well with the projection and sound design – good collaboration there. The few set pieces and furniture items were moved on and off the stage by the cast.
Jennifer Schilansky held the show together as stage manager, always in the shadows, but eminently important.
Smart People is very worth seeing. It will make you question your own biases in the context of a rich, entertaining, dramatic/comic, theatrical experience. I didn’t want it to end.
Smart People plays September 3 through September 22, 2017. Wednesday & Thursday evening performances at 7:30 PM. Friday & Saturday evenings at 8:00 PM. Sunday matinee performances at 4:00 PM. Thursday matinee performance at 2:00 PM.
The Kitchen Theatre Company is located at 417 W. State/MLK, Jr. St. Ithaca, NY 14850. Subscriptions Available from $108 to $284. Single Tickets Available from $15 to $45. ● Online at kitchentheatre.org/tickets.html ● By phone at (607) 272-0570