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The Racist Brain?

by Julie Walker
Wednesday Jul 2, 2014

Smart People, Huntington Theatre Company at Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, through July 6

For nearly two decades, behavioral researchers from the United States (Harvard, U.Washington and U.Virginia) to Israel (Yoav Bar Anan at Ben Gurion U.) have been studying human thoughts and feelings outside of conscious awareness and control. Social scientists Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald have been attempting to gain new insight about the stereotypes and hidden attitudes that reside in those thoughts and feelings with the aid of a procedure they call the Implicit Association Test (IAT). Now former Huntington Playwriting Fellow Lydia P. Diamond has written a witty play entitled "Smart People" in which such research and subconscious biases very much come in to play in 2008-2009 Cambridge. Strongly helmed by out Huntington Theatre Company artistic director Peter DuBois, its lively Calderwood Pavilion world premiere proves both lively and timely.

Pivotal to that timeliness are the earnest efforts of fictional neuro-psychiatrist Brian White, whose work on human responses and reactions to photos of black and white people leads him to believe in the existence of 'racist brains.' The ironically named researcher not only encounters resistance to his findings but also faces misunderstanding about having excused three (unseen) students - including an African-American named Jones and a Jew named Goldstein-from a session of his Harvard class "for being smart." Rounding out the play's Cambridge-based 'smart people' are Brian's Harvard-tenured Chinese-Japanese-American love Ginny Yang, Harvard Medical School surgical intern Jackson Moore and American Repertory Theatre MFA-earning trainee Valerie Johnston, who cleans homes while developing her career as an actress.

As Diamond demonstrates the complexities of the characters' own thoughts and feelings, Alexander Dodge's two-level and four-area design by turns becomes the diverse settings for their interactions and relationships-among them, the rooms Brian and Ginny share, the lockers of Brian and Jackson's gym and the emergency center where Jackson treats Valerie for a stage accident. Along the way, there are telling observations. Ginny complains about a stereotypical accusation that Asian women sleep around but praises Brian for not being "infected by yellow fever." Jackson contends that a black intern cannot obtain a decent mentor in Boston and cautions Valerie that housekeeping sets back African-Americans. Brian-sounding like Lieutenant Cable in the pioneering 'You've Got to Be Carefully Taught" number in the musical "South Pacific"-maintains that Americans are programmed to hate.

At the same time, identity and ethnic pride are key factors in Diamond's remarkably balanced play. As an Asian-American, Ginny feels marginalized by studies that employ photos of black and white Americans. Mention is also significantly made of the need for more findings about Latinos and the fact that Some Jews (if not many) do not identify as 'whites' on forms and include themselves in the ambiguous category 'other.'

"Smart People" may not propose any easy answers to racism and prejudice, but DuBois' stellar cast makes the most of Diamond's entertainingly incisive play. Roderick Hill captures Brian's professional courage as well as his vulnerability with Ginny, played with convincing confidence by Eunice Wong. Miranda Craigwell catches all of Valerie's inner struggle as a black woman determined to fulfill her professional as well as personal objectives. McKinley Belcher III finds all of Jackson's rage at being accused of having 'attitude' as a black intern and his clarity in exchanges with Brian and romancing with Valerie.

While some observers have seen the inauguration of President Obama-here off-stage if properly historic- as a sign that America is becoming 'post-racial,' "Smart People" rightly seems to present Brian's findings as a provocative challenge for theatergoers in particular and humanity in general. Huntington Theatre's exhilarating "Smart People" premiere is very smart theater.

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