At KCAT, ‘Smart People’ Is an Aimless Exploration of Human Contradictions

A young Black woman stares intently ahead. An Asian woman stands at a podium behind her.

Ashley Kennedy and Ai Vy Bui in “Smart People” (Mike Tsai)

The synopsis of Lydia R. Diamond’s cerebral comedy Smart People, now playing at Kansas City Actors Theatre, reads: “four highly educated friends gather on the eve of Barack Obama’s 2008 election to attempt to navigate the tough questions about race, and examining their biases through a lens of their backgrounds and their education.” As it turns out, that is very much not what the play is about, though the innaccuracy can be excused, I suppose, because the play basically defies description.

In actuality, the play is made up of a series of monologues and short scenes between various pairings of four characters. The vast majority of the action takes before the 2008 presidential primaries, before a massive and nearly entirely unnecessary time jump, leaping ahead to the November election (plus an inauguragtion epilogue of sorts). But even that momentous event is barely more than a tangential backdrop for the characters’ ordeals—or, if we’re being honest, the ordeals of one character.

The “smart people” here are Brian (Brian Paulette), a Harvard professor of neuroscience focused on proving racism is built into the brain chemistry of his fellow white people; Ginny (Ai Vy Bui), a psychology professor with a luxury shopping addiction, Valerie (Ashley Kennedy), a young actor, who, having just recently gotten her MFA, spends her days cleaning houses before heading to Ibsen and Shakespeare rehearsals; and Jackson (Terrace Wyatt, Jr.), a young Black surgical intern who feels targeted by his superiors because of his race and who also somehow manages to find the time during his residency for a side gig running a clinic for patients without insurance.

These characters are defined by their complexities and contradictions, which are discussed and debated and rehashed at length. Even still, by the end of this play about the myriad ways racism manifests—from the quotidian to the systemic to the neurological—the only character who feels fully fleshed out is Brian, the sole white man.

Brian’s identity is so entirely rooted in being a socially “evolved” liberal white man that he is unable to actually see himself or the harm he causes. He was “raised by a feminist,” and thus can’t be bothered to avoid misogynistic microaggressions. He feels comfortable making flippant blanket remarks to his sole Black friend, throwing out phrases like “your people,” because he “gets it.” Most egregiously, he’s convinced himself that he and only he has the scientific answer for addressing racism, even if that determination requires him to dismiss and insult the criticisms, concerns, and outright fears supplied by the Black people and other POC in his life.

These extreme contradictions of character come very close to being something really compelling. But, like most elements of the play, they never fully land with any sort of meaningful resonance. The play is at once completely overstuffed and ultimately impotent, approaching its own challenging conceits with frustrating toothlessness. The talented cast does the best they can with the material (Paulette and Kennedy are particular stand-outs) but they’re not done any favors by director Ile Haggins’ perplexing staging, keeping the actors confined to extremely limited areas of the stage, which, with no set and every drape drawn fully aside, feels chasmically desolate.

Smart People is centered around some really interesting (and important) ideas, so at the very least, it’s a good conversation starter—even if the play, unfortunately, doesn’t steer that conversation anywhere particularly worthwhile on its own.

“Smart People,” a production of Kansas City Actors Theatre, runs through January 29 at City Stage, on the lower level of Union Station, 30 W Pershing Rd, Kansas City, MO. For more information, visit www.kcactors.org.

Vivian Kane

Vivian Kane is a writer living in Kansas City. She covers pop culture and politics for a national audience at The Mary Sue and theatre and film locally, with bylines in The Pitch. She has an MFA in Theatre from CalArts.

  1. Darren Sextro says:

    I’d like to be as respectful as possible about this. Now that the final performance of “Smart People” (a production that I admittedly loved with some legitimate bias) is underway, I felt compelled to respond to this KC Studio review, although the downside is that I also dislike further spotlighting the writer’s words. In my years of theater work, I think I’ve only once before entered into public discourse about a negative, positive, or ambivalent critique, and that was a couple of decades ago when a reviewer centered a critical perspective on William Shakespeare, trying to convince readers that “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” was an ill-written work, an approach that I found comical. This time, my reaction isn’t one of amusement.

    I’ll also preface this with an assumption of good intent, that the writer and editors at KC Studio didn’t intend for this scolding review to land in the way that I’ve interpreted below. That said, over the past several days I’ve had trouble “looking the other way” about what appears to have occurred here, and when I privately addressed it several days ago with the editor of KC Studio, I was first indulged with what read like a templated disclaimer, and then when I tried to clarify my concerns, my follow-up went without response. It then occurred to me that perhaps one of the many things that has changed for the better about the hard work of theater is that a dialogue with the media is occasionally appropriate even as we try to honor the chasm of oft-required silence between artistic creators and those who analyze, applaud, uphold, and sometimes thoughtfully pick apart the art.

    Without becoming too tedious about this, my greatest concern first surfaces with an early summary claim within the review that “…even that momentous event is barely more than a tangential backdrop for the characters’ ordeals—or, if we’re being honest, the ordeals of one character.” This is most troubling not incidentally because it’s leveled by a white critic at a work by a black playwright: The critic primarily attached herself to the one white character and was less impacted by the stories of the three other significant characters who are (meaningfully to this concern) a black woman, an Asian woman, and a black man. Am I too sensitive to this as a prime example of the white gaze on a story that, in actuality, is not about the “ordeals of one character” (the white character)? It leans disturbingly into the very definition of racial bias in critical analysis.

    Later in the review, the critic revisits her annoyance: “…the only character who feels fully fleshed out is Brian, the sole white man.” Here, her approach continues to blame the text by Lydia Diamond through a white-centered perspective. Hey, I’m a privileged white man full of unchecked bias, so I get how this can happen without mindfulness and care, and I also grasp that artistic analysis is often subjective, but I don’t think this is a subjective point: Lydia Diamond, a black playwright, has not written this play centered on the “sole white man.” By the time the reviewer expands to a full onslaught on the production, she has already established her gravely biased misunderstanding about the text, so now all her brutal assessments lack critical authority.

    I know there is still a sturdy reason for theatrical critique, and that work needn’t always be applause, although the reality is that creators are critical enough of their own work even when being congratulated…and certainly in the face of criticism. But if a critic levels pointed, negative analysis, that critic should make sure the corrective perspective is absolutely solid. That lack of responsibility, including on the part of KC Studio, is probably what has troubled me so much about this particular piece of writing in recent days. In this rare departure from protocol, it felt important to share my alternative perspective.

    1. Joel Short says:

      I read this freelance reviewer’s opinion as more a critique of the writing, and not really much of a critique of the production. There were a number of convenient , but not so plausible plot elements, but my personal experience was that I did want to know more about all these characters. The best scene was the last one at dinner both dramatically and substantively. The filmic style of the play (which seems to afflict many twentieth and twenty-first century playwrights) was a bit irksome, as the blackouts constantly were really unnecessary to suggest a new location. I understood the furniture setting some scenes, but not needed if it slows down and interrupts the action. Set the furniture during the previous scene. We will suspend our disbelief. As I will with this freelance critic. More than one opinion in local journalism would be appreciated KC Studio. Did The Pitch review? Bravo for speaking up, Mr Sextro.

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