What's black and white and crimson all over?
Lydia R. Diamond's new play, "Smart People," examines the volatile dynamics of race among four members of the Harvard community around the time Harvard Law School grad Barack Obama was first elected to the presidency. The Huntington Theatre Company production begins performances Friday at the Boston Center for the Arts.
"I have always spoken to my work being about the intersection of race and class and sexuality, but I always kind of back-ended into it," Diamond said. "I started writing this play and I thought, you know what? This is about race. I'm not going to pretend it's a play that's just about how these people who just happen to be these different races bounce off each other and such is the landscape of America and blah blah blah. This is my 'there it is' kind of play."
Her characters in "Smart People" could have been plucked from any Cambridge coffeehouse. Valerie Johnston recently graduated from the American Repertory Theater's ART Institute with an MFA in acting. Jackson Moore is a Harvard Medical School intern on a surgical rotation. Psychology professor Ginny Yang studies race and identity among Asian-American women. And Brian White is a neuropsychiatrist and professor who studies perceptions of racial identity.
Valerie and Jackson are African-American. Ginny is Chinese-Japanese-American. And Brian is, well, white. His last name can be taken as a sign of how directly Diamond confronts the issues. These four befriend each other, argue, and couple up while Brian's work — or perhaps his too-candid discussion of it — begins to derail his career.
"It's the first play that's come along that I feel like in a very contemporary way picks up the nitroglycerine of racism," said Peter DuBois, the Huntington's artistic director. The play "refracts these aspects of racism in a way that's both disarming, because it's funny, and provocative. I think Lydia's surprising in how she's talking about race."
DuBois is directing the world premiere of "Smart People," which plays through July 6. Miranda Craigwell is Valerie and McKinley Belcher III (who was in the Huntington's "Invisible Man") plays Jackson. Roderick Hill ("What the Butler Saw" at the Huntington) and Eunice Wong play Brian and Ginny.
"Smart People" plays the Wimberly Theatre stage where Diamond's "Stick Fly" became a hit before moving to Broadway. That play, about a contentious summer gathering of an upper-class black family, had a large, detailed set of a home on Martha's Vineyard, befitting its largely naturalistic feel. "Smart People" comes with a fast-changing modular set — "It's cool, it's complicated," said DuBois, showing off the model — enabling Diamond's vision of quick crosscutting between characters and scenes in the classroom, locker room, and bedroom.
DuBois: "The first time I read it — I said this to Lydia, and it's a compliment — it reminds me of when Aaron Sorkin first started with 'West Wing' and these people were saying really smart [expletive] while they were walking down a hallway really fast, and then they'd dash into an office and collide into another situation that required them to think really fast and say really smart [expletive] again. And that's kind of how I see this play."
Diamond started writing "Smart People" in 2007 on a commission from the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, N.J., amid a changing conversation about race in America around the presidential election. Although any Ivy League school might do, the play is set at Harvard in part because she knows the milieu. Diamond's husband worked there during the nine years they lived in Boston. Diamond held a Radcliffe fellowship and was on the faculty at Boston University. They moved back to the Chicago area with their son last year.
The genesis of the play was a complex study by two Princeton scientists that showed different brain activity in subjects shown pictures of people from various social groups, such as addicts and the homeless. But Diamond has turned the science a couple of notches toward controversy in "Smart People." Brian is studying a possible biological basis for racism, work that seems to bother everyone he knows, though for different reasons. His increasingly candid comments on the topic come to a head in an op-ed that touches off what one character calls a "whole race firestorm."
Diamond says her play "is less about the science and more about the state of this country and the national psyche."
Racism is an eternal hot-button topic in America — just in the last week, tiny Wolfeboro, N.H., made national news because a police commissioner used a racial slur to describe Obama. Scientists studying the subject feel they can hardly be so blunt as Brian, Diamond said. "I look at the things being studied and the way they're being talked about, and I think about what the scientists are actually thinking, not what they have to write to not have their careers ruined or cause a firestorm."
She also wanted to write a white male protagonist. "When you're a playwright of color, you're always a playwright of color, and I was kind of interested in what people would do with this presumptuous black woman who presumed to write a white male," she said. "It's a test of that thing I'm trying to put my finger on in my play, because in 2014 surely that shouldn't even enter my mind, but it's there, it sits there, and I was interested in that too."
Of course, the regional theater audience tends to be white and older. "If I were an academic the way the characters in my play are academics, I would write papers for the rest of my life about what the demographics of an audience does to a play, and what the conversation becomes because of that, and to what degree should a writer be aware of that and to what degree can a writer not help but be aware of it," Diamond said.
There's a definite difference in how a play is received by black and white audiences when it deals with the topic of race, she said. "I had a reading of this play at ['Stick Fly' director Kenny Leon's] company, True Colors, in Atlanta and had an audience of 300 black people see this play, and it was a different play."
In an audience with groups of both black and white people, she said, you can "hear a joke land differently for each section of the audience. It's almost as if the different factions give each other permission to laugh at different times, or give each other cues, or just kind of completely miss some things."
She notes that she tries not to explain African-American cultural references in her work, like the word "siddity" in "Smart People," which refers to someone acting pretentiously. "It's affirming to not have white be the norm and presume that then the story has to be told through a white lens," Diamond said. "I think it's OK if you don't get something about hair grease. You'll be OK."
Although "Smart People" is often called a comedy, the laughs are mixed with some heavy stuff, then. "That's what I do! That's my whole shtick," she said, laughing. But she had a serious answer, too.
For that black audience in Atlanta, she said, "Smart People" was definitely a comedy, bringing laughter of recognition "for a truth that that audience doesn't get to see onstage much," Diamond said. "And that is the play that I'm trying to write, that I'm always trying to write."
Wimberly Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont St., 617-266-0800. http://www.huntingtontheatre.org
Writers: Lydia R. Diamond
Director: Peter DuBois
Performing company: Huntington Theatre Company
Date of first performance: May 23
Date closing: July 6
Ticket price: Tickets start at $25