Dumb ‘Smart People’: a review

Culture Curmudgeon

Clockwise (from top left): Lorene Chesley as Valerie Johnston, Sue Jin Song as Ginny Yang, Gregory Perri as Brian White and Jaysen Wright as Jackson Moore in Smart People at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, running April 14-May 21, 2017. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Smart People’s most obvious and belabored message- that everyone is racist- wasn’t fun to watch. The uneven production at Washington DC’s Arena Stage or the hammy script were probably the culprits.

There were some genuine laughs along the way- but their delivery was meant more for a television audience for a sitcom than a group of mostly-seasoned theatre goers. Of course I laughed along because the cast was talented enough to deliver the lines with gusto and perfect timing.

Ahmad Coo is a producer and copy editor for the Global Business show on CGTN America. His analysis represents his views alone.Culture Curmudgeon Ahmad Coo

However, that timing was also its biggest drawback. It was bothersome that some part of the scripts seemed to be written to build up to punchlines. The fact that the actors held their silences a little too long in order to emphasize a line to get maximum hilarity did not help. I closed my eyes and listened to the actors and listened to their reactions. It sounded like the type of canned laughter used in cheesy sitcoms in the 1980s.

I really wanted Smart People to be better than what it was because it explored racism. But these days it’s a topic that’s debated and dissected endlessly by every conceivable cultural outlet- plays, fiction, art, etc. The production deals with the ages-old debate about the origins of racism and whether it’s a result of our environment or something that’s hardwired into our brains.

Frighteningly intelligent characters engage in that debate for most of the play- hence the title of production. I liked the characters for the most part but the actors playing them annoyed me to the point of distraction. One’s a struggling black woman who’s a classically trained actress, an Asian American woman who’s a therapist with commitment issues, a white male researcher at a prominent university who- for a lack of a better phrase- is trying to ‘fight the power,’ and a brilliant- but socially awkward- young African American doctor.

Race is always a fascinating topic to explore in plays and movies, but since there are a multitude of them, these productions have to be really special to set them apart from the mediocre ones. It’s not enough that they reflect the public debate. Anyone can regurgitate pop culture and the zeitgeist in a production. Raising it to the level of a masterpiece is another matter. ‘Smart People’ fails miserably in this respect.

Instead of elevating itself, the play falls back lazily on tried and tested material. The playwright had created an interesting character in the fiercely independent and intelligent Asian woman. She’s someone who doesn’t suffer fools- especially white men who have ‘yellow fever.’ It was inspiring to see her rail against the patriarchy in one scene when the main white character is trying to seduce her. She makes it clear to him that she’s not a stereotype of a typically submissive over-sexualized Asian woman.

(L to R) Sue Jin Song as Ginny Yang and Gregory Perri as Brian White in Smart People at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, running April 14-May 21, 2017. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

And then after all that, she submits and sleeps with him anyway- and to add insult to injury, she starts playfully speaking in broken accented English to play up her otherness. Shortly after that I lost all interest. I wanted to throw something onto the stage in protest.

(L to R) Lorene Chesley as Valerie Johnston and Jaysen Wright as Jackson Moore in Smart People at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, running April 14-May 21, 2017. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Even the portrayal of the African American doctor was disheartening. Here was another character who piqued my interest because he broke out of a box that society was forcibly trying to put him in. His outrage was infectious and frustration, palpable. And then at the end, he turned out to be a sexist pig who uses women like toilet paper. It was such a lazy treatment of what could have been a very compelling character.

I tried very hard to like ‘Smart People’ but I couldn’t do it. It’s unfortunate it preferred to play up the laughs instead of sticking to what could have been an interesting exploration of racism. I’ll definitely give the production an ‘A’ for effort, but a ‘C-’ for follow-up.

But my assessment could be completely wrong. Maybe the writers and producers really did intend to give it the feel and impact of a sitcom- and use racism as a foil for laughs. But if that was the intended effect, why even bother trekking to a theatre? Anyone can get that canned laughter and lazy humor from an idiot box from the comfort of their own couches.