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.