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UW-Madison makes a smart move in staging social commentary ‘Smart People’

Are white people biologically hardwired for bigotry or are people of all races and classes prejudiced to some degree?

Such questions are the driving force behind Smart People, the latest work by African-American playwright Lydia Diamond, opening at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mitchell Theatre on Feb. 25. The sharp-edged satire uses both humor and heart to take a pointed approach to the foibles of its four well-heeled characters, who all struggle with race, gender, sexuality and career issues.

UW–Madison’s theater department is mounting the country’s first authorized university-level production of Smart People, which just received its off-Broadway premiere at New York’s Second Stage Theatre on Feb. 10. Chuck Smith, resident director at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, helms the Madison production.

“It’s a play about racism and how it affects behavior in our private lives,” says Smith, who is African-American. “Mainly how it tears away at the self-esteem of people of color.”

Diamond generally agrees, but the playwright says there was a little more to her intent behind the play.

“I know that when I write about race, it can’t be seen as objective,” says Diamond, a Huntington Playwriting Fellow and playwright emerita with Chicago Dramatists. “My plays always deal with race, class and gender because that’s what I am interested in. With Smart People I want to own and elevate the conversation.“

Smart People also is the first of Diamond’s plays to feature a white male protagonist. The young neuropsychiatrist’s research is the primary catalyst driving the comic-drama’s narrative.

Brian White (Daniel Millhouse in the UW production), a Harvard professor on the verge of tenure, is friends with Jackson (Cylie Agee), an African-American surgical intern at Harvard Medical School. White wants Harvard to fund his study, which asserts that white people are biologically programmed for racial prejudice.

Harvard wants to distance itself from such incendiary research, a position largely embodied by psychology professor Ginny Yang (Lucy Tan), an Chinese- and Japanese-American woman who studies race and identity among Asian-American women. Valerie Johnston (Aaliyah Boyd), an African-American stage performer with a Harvard MFA in acting, rounds out the cast of characters.

The quartet members are well educated, attractive, bright and not a little bit smug about their own liberal intellectualism, characteristics that Diamond’s sharp-tongued dialogue repeatedly skewers. The play’s Harvard University setting and ivy-covered overload should seem achingly familiar to UW’s academic population.

Perhaps most alarming about Smart People’s premise is that White’s study is inspired by the conclusions of university-level research.

“I ran across a study, Dehumanizing the Lowest of the Low, by Susan Fiske, a neuroscientist at Princeton University who studied the brain’s response to different images of people,” says Diamond, a former assistant professor at Boston University. “Images of babies, for example, caused the brain to fire with joy, but when study subjects were shown photos of brown-skinned indigent people, the brains did not fire at all. I found that very startling.”

Fiske’s 2005 study, conducted with fellow researcher Alana Harris, used functional magnetic resonance imaging data to examine the brain activity of 22 volunteers shown photos of people and objects, with the images divided into four distinct response quadrants. The study went beyond questions of race, but the idea stuck in Diamond’s mind, forming the basis along with other similar studies for her protagonist’s research.

Comparisons between themes within the play, which takes place on the eve of President Barack Obama’s 2008 election, and current events are inevitable.

“Thematically, because it’s a play that lives in America, it reflects to a certain extent what’s going on in our culture,” Diamond explains. “It was written seven years ago, but the themes still resonate.”

Conversations about race are still uncomfortable for American society and for people of all races, Diamond says. While it’s important to have that discussion, the playwright is the first to insist that Smart People comes to the stage without an agenda or mission other than to inform, entertain, and even make people laugh.

“What the play does is start the conversation,” she says. “I want the audience to be entertained and maybe become a little uncomfortable. If the audience leaves still talking about the play, I think I will have done my job.

“It’s a very funny play,” Diamond adds, “and funny is the one thing that all races share.”

ON STAGE

Lydia Diamond’s Smart People will run through March 13 at the Mitchell Theatre, 821 University Ave., on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, Tickets are $15 to $22 plus a facility fee. Call 608-265-2787 or visit theater.wisc.edu.

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