Theater Review: “Smart People” Takes on Race at Second Stage

SmartPeople Smart People, now at 2econd Stage Theatre in New York, takes an incisive look at the role race plays in our lives, from career to personal, and particularly when the two mesh. Written by Lydia Diamond and starring Mahershala Ali (House of Cards), Joshua Jackson (The Affair, Dawson’s Creek), Anne Son (My Generation), and Tessa Thompson (Creed, Dear White People), Smart People is a fast-paced, invigorating play.

Four Harvard intellectuals see their worlds collide as they deal with careers, love, and identity. Underpinning it all–the successes and failures–is the influence of race. How does it shape daily interactions? From microaggressions to blunt statements, Smart People strikes at who and what is “racist.” What is tolerable and what is not.

While none of the statements, jokes, and snappy comments made about race were particularly new and cutting, that is perhaps their beauty. To see these uncomfortable conversations play out on stage, for stereotypes to be made and broken, broken and re-made, is unspeakably valuable. It is largely artful, excepting some inevitable stumbles. Interracial relationships of all types abound (or as many as you can make with four characters). Specific lines — “I’m uncomfortable celebrating my marginalization with other disgruntled minorities,” for one — cut through. In the hands of an enormously talented cast, Smart People shines.

More and special offer code after the jump–

Tessa Thompson, Joshua Jackson, Mahershala Ali and Anne Son in SMART PEOPLE Photo by Matthew Murphy

Photo by Matthew Murphy

The play opens in a series of overlapping and broken up monologues from each of the characters, setting the stage for the type of rapid-fire writing and dialogue that keeps your attention throughout the play. These include: The white man who stakes his career on proving whites have issues with race (to the non-shock of all the others)… The doctor who can’t catch a break… The actress who lands a big role to be only asked about colorblind casting… The shrink whose patients challenge her own ideas about identity… The characters are pigeon-holed by others, by the audience, but they also break free and it is in this space that Smart People does the most interesting work in talking about race, expectations, success, love, and life.

The characters are all flawed and often unlikable, but this makes it feel all the more genuine. These are people who are acting on instincts we recognize. The play as a whole sometimes stumbles as it tries to hew the fine line that comes with writing so closely and in such a focused manner about race, but that is only to be expected. Deeply uncomfortable moments are scattered throughout. In one scene between Ginny (Son) and Brian (Jackson), Ginny purposefully acts out Asian female stereotypes in the bedroom. This comes in the wake of earlier lines from their meet-cute: “I don’t date. I just sleep around. Because I’m a slut. Not because I’m Asian.” It’s horribly weird, but perhaps that is its strength, I’m on the fence.

What unfolds in Smart People is a particular type of conversation about race, one that happens in the halls of academia and its reaches outwards (race over class). But it is a conversation I am all too familiar, being myself a product and participant of such environments so it is one I recognize, one I appreciate seeing on stage dynamically acted. And it is refreshing to see interracial and intraracial relationships romantic and otherwise. This is everyone stumbling through race with each other and to each other, not just focused, as Brian’s study in the play does, on whites and their issues with race.

Smart People is wry and, well, smart. The end was perhaps too clean and it has its flaws, its mundacities, but the climax fight over dinner that brings everyone into the same room for the first time is spectacular. And that’s really all you need to know.

Special offer code to see Smart People. Use special offer code WICG to purchase $45 tickets. Go to to purchase or call 212-246-4422. You can also purchase at the box office – 305 West 43rd Street and mention the code.

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About Lily

East Coast Chinese American. I like thick-skinned dumplings and hard-covered books.
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