Wednesday 8 November 2017

Smart People proves IQ is hardly everything

All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

From the footlights : Biological determinism [b.d.] is the belief that traits are hardwired in one's racial DNA. Thus social environment, nutrition, educational opportunity and/or financial comfort have zero roles to play : one is superior or inferior by accident of birth. Revisiting this age-old b.d. / b.s. notion is the conceit that underscores Smart People by Lydia R. Diamond.

First produced in 2014, it is set during Barack Obama's heady run for the Democratic Party presidential nomination in 2008 and ends with his inauguration in January, 2009. Four eggheads -- well, three -plus- an actor -- all are Harvard-educated. They are a mix of races and gender who swap a ton of yakkety-yak about social construct biases. Along the way they quip and gibe and snipe, wittily and risibly, often enough by soliloquy to an off-stage listener. And, of course, in doing so each reveals their own soft shell.

How it's all put together : No question the smart people of Smart People would likely not have found themselves 500 miles south during the racial mayhem in Charlottesville, Virginia this past summer. One is an African-American surgical intern at Harvard Medical named Jackson Moore (Kwesi Ameyaw). His set-off is a caucasian neuropsychiatrist named, archly, Brian White (Aaron Craven) who is trying to prove clinically that racial bias is DNA-innate. Ginny Yang (Tricia Collins) is a Chinese-Japanese American psychology professor who counsels troubled Asian women struggling with their cultural shackles. Finally there is African American Valerie Johnston (Katrina Reynolds). She is trying to score stage roles after recently getting her MFA in acting. 

The show starts with each of the four revealing bits of their personalities and the frustrations they feel in their chosen career cocoons. Ginny and Brian meet at a stereotypically liberal-minded Harvard affair : a gathering of "the committee for the study of minority matriculation, recruitment and retention". Before the sober session starts they flirt. Then ultimately fling.

Surgeon intern Jackson (Kwesi Ameyaw) treats up-&-coming actor Valerie (Katrina Reynolds) in a scene revealing the biases that come from within a social-ethnic group, never mind all the mindsets that assault from without.
How does actor Valerie meet wannabe surgeon Jackson? When he's putting in slavish hours at the med school clinic. She shows up looking for stitches after getting slightly sliced by some theatric scenery she smacks into. Showing her cultural colours, she assumes that being black he's an RN not an MD. Through such short scenes and monologues the show presents viewers a pirouette around issues near and dear to Ms. Diamond's heart. The characters' biases and existential beliefs betray some clumsy footwork, no question. Finally the plot contorts somewhat awkwardly into a squaredance that finds the four at dinner together. Footwork steps aside for a riposte of spice & vinegar.  

Scriptural values : I suspect playwright Diamond had no idea the levels of irony her script would play upon as she was writing it (see the two Addendums). It is the ultimate irony of Smart People, in 2017, that whether racism is DNA-rooted or culturally-tattooed from life experience is fundamentally an irrelevant question. 

Clever, sure, that Ms. Diamond's character Dr. Brian White from Harvard feels himself ultimately treated like a "nigger" because his b.d. data-grab about DNA-based white racism is rejected by his professorial colleagues and along with it his tenure-track bid in the Year of Obama. That was then, this is now, so it's not the irony I mean. 

The parallel, analogously, is climate change : whether from anthropogenic causes or God-on-a-rant or simply a new "is" like the Ice Age of yore, climate change is the current is and it's not changing soon. 

So the parallel is the 90% white NFL crowds booing the 70% black players on their favourite teams when they kneel or lock arms during the USA national anthem -- and then cheering them wildly when they score touchdowns. Irony promptly puffs up to paradox in such scenarios.

Acting & production pin-spots : In this vigorous outing by all it would be a mug's game to single out any performer of the four as singularly more stunning than any other. In their own idiosyncratic ways each contributed to a collection of acting parts that perhaps exceeded the dramatic whole that playwright Diamond was seeking. I.e. the characters' arguments and tightly-designed peccadilloes were more compelling, individually, than any kind of completeness in character development. That said the part of Dr. Jackson Moore as interpreted by Kwesi Ameyaw came closest to a person you might want to know. 

The only reservation about the production itself would be a couple of scenes by director Mackay that were curiously staged : (1) the first locker room scene between White and Moore where they stood glued to the floor at opposite ends of the bench, and (2) the two bar scenes between White and Yang where they both suffered rigor mortis across a table too-fat by half. A 6th piece of furniture on the spare set to make those scenes more intimate and a lot more sexy byplay with the wineglasses wouldn't have been off-sides.

Who gonna like :  Smart People is witty, crafty canny stuff. Even moreso than Lydia Diamond imagined as noted above. It is dexterously delivered here by the Mitch-&-Murray crew who take full advantage of Studio 16's black box venue done theatre-in-the-round -- just-right simple staging in David Roberts' set for the complex ideas around race and culture and bigotry being bandied back-&-forth. Fans of small theatre spaces with scripts designed for mental impact are the target here. If that's you, you'll find much to please you in this show no question !

Particulars : Canadian Premiere produced by mitchandmurrayproductions. On until November 18, 2017. At the Studio 16 stage, 1555 West 7th Avenue, Vancouver. Run-time 120 minutes including intermission.  Tickets & schedules through

Production team : Director David Mackay.  Set Designer David Roberts.  Lighting & Sound Designer Chengyan Boon. Co-producer Anna Marie Deluise. Stage Manager Jennifer Wilson. Communications Kate Issac. Associate Producer Kwesi Ameyaw. Technical Director Colin Carruthers.

Performers : Kwesi Ameyaw (Jackson).  Tricia Collins (Ginny).  Aaron Craven (Brian).  Katrina Reynolds (Valerie).

Addendum #1 : The playwright's view of her own script was itself a "tell" when she was interviewed this past Spring by Nelson Pressley of The Washington Post. Ms. Diamond said the play took eight years to write, starting in 2006 : "I wanted to write a play about race. I had always done this interesting dance of acknowledging that my aesthetic is the dynamic of race, class, sex and gender...It took eight years because while I was writing it Obama ran and won, and the way we talked about race changed dramatically."  With Obama's election many pundits called America "post-racial". A check with Urban Dictionary today was useful here : "an utterly imaginary and fictional term, much like 'pixie dust' because there is no such thing".

As if to prove UD's point, Ms. Diamond's "changed dramatically" comment last April was made just six weeks after Mr. Obama did his exit, stage left, and thanks to the USA's Electoral College deus ex machina, Donald J. Trump swooped down on the right flank for the country's 45th try at the president role. Diamond's "dramatically changed" remark also came just four months before the "Unite the Right!" clash in Charlottesville, Virginia alluded to above. Lest we forget that clash involved dozens of white supremicists sporting KKK-style torches shouting bigoted epithets such as "The Jews will not replace us!" It resulted in the death of a #blacklivesmatter advocate there protesting the alt-right racist venom being spit out. Another 19 protestors were injured when a car driven by a white man was purposely throttled to plow headlong into them. Such is the way today's terrorists the world over are fond of murdering and maiming infidels (when, alas, they can't pick up a semi-automatic rifle at the local Saturday swap meet instead ). 

Kurt Vonnegut's protagonist Billy Pilgrim probably said it best -- resignedly -- in the iconic masterpiece Slaughterhouse Five : "So it goes."

Addendum #2 : Coincidentally in today's on-line version of UK's The Guardian was a piece by Gary Younge titled "My travels in white America : a land of anxiety, division and pockets of pain".  He describes his journey over the Summer of '17 from Maine to Mississippi visiting only white communities. 

Younge, himself black, writes : 

White Americans make up a majority of the country. Compared with other races, they may enjoy an immense concentration of wealth and power. But these privileges are nonetheless underpinned by considerable anxiety. Their health is failing (white people’s life expectancy has stalled or dipped in recent years), their wages are stagnating (adjusting for inflation, they are just 10% higher now than they were 44 years ago) and class fluidity is drying up (the prospects of poor white Americans breaking through class barriers is worse now than it has been for a long time). Out-traded by China (in 2016 the trade deficit with the country was $347bn); soon to be outnumbered at home (within a generation white people will be a minority); and outmanoeuvred on the battlefields of the Arab world and beyond (neither of the wars launched in response to 9/11 have ended in victory), these vulnerabilities are felt at home and abroad. Meanwhile, Black Lives Matter protesters are in the streets over police brutality, football players are taking a knee and the movement to bring legal status to large numbers of undocumented people grows. White Americans feel more pessimistic about their future than any other group. Almost two-thirds of white working-class people think the country has changed for the worse since the 50s...

If there’s one thing that 200 years of slavery and 100 years of segregation did for African Americans, it was to temper their investment in the myth that the US is a meritocracy. The notion that if you worked hard and kept your nose clean, you would get on was always stymied by the grim realities of racial barriers. “America was never America to me,” wrote the Harlem renaissance poet Langston Hughes in 1935’s Let America Be America Again. “There’s never been equality for me / Nor freedom in this ‘homeland of the free’.”
But, for many white Americans, the expectation that each year would be better than the next and each generation healthier and wealthier provided the core for optimism. However, with those assumptions being eroded, the mood is now more reminiscent of a post-colonial country. People are looking back for a sense of hope. Ask Trump voters when they would like to go back to if they wanted to make America great again and they will give you a date. Jeff Baxter wants to go back to the glow of the 60s, Ted to the 80s, others to the 50s and beyond.


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