“Smart People” is a play that ran in Studio B/Gruber Theater in the Fine Arts Building March 9 through March 11. The comedy of manners is set in the days leading up to former President Barack Obama’s 2008 win. Following four Harvard University graduates — psychologist Ginny Yang, actress Valerie Johnston, surgeon Jackson Moore and neuropsychiatrist Brian White — the story shows how the group navigates discussions about race, prompted by White’s research that the brains of white people are predisposed to racism. Godfrey L. Simmons Jr., a senior lecturer in acting at Cornell University’s department of performing and media arts, directed the play written by playwright Lydia R. Diamond. PRISM sat down with the cast to find out how they prepared for their roles, what they learned from the experience and what they hoped audience members took home.
PRISM: Focusing on your characters, Anna, as an Asian American, how were you able to relate to Ginny?
Anna Jiang: The one thing that I never really appreciated about Ginny was how mean she was to customer service. I shop a lot and buy too many things, but I’m never mean to customer service. But everything else — I mean I agree with most of her statements about how to deal with the problems that Asian Americans are facing, and I feel like the more I read the play, the more I was kind of saying in my mind like, “Oh, this is me, minus the customer service bit.”
P: Brian, coming in to play the liberal white guy, I think he saw himself as the essential ally. How did you feel about playing this role?
Brian Dailey: Ally is one way to put it. I think that it’s important to recognize that by the end of the show we don’t, we’re not necessarily fond of this character. The lexicon of Brian White is vitriolic and harmful and rightly called out. He doesn’t approach the audience, though, in your classic high-collared, caped supervillain way, but he’s unfortunately just sort of this quintessential character that represents an unfortunate subset of our population that is sort of misled about how to start a conversation like this. So I think, more or less, I was just profoundly interested.
P: Monique, being from Jamaica, and having Valerie dealing with a lot of stereotypes associated with a black woman living in America, were there certain things that you felt you didn’t necessarily understand?
Monique Nugent: I feel like I unfortunately have had experiences that helped me to grasp where she’s coming from with certain things. It’s kind of like certain experiences did give me a framework for Valerie, but then I also appreciated all the research that we had to do for our characters to learn more about why they’re doing what they’re doing or what we think would happen in the moment from their perspective.
P: And then, Elijah, you had to play a character that was always fighting the stereotype of the easily angered or aggressive black man. Is that something you were able to relate to?
Elijah Michael Fremont: Well, I definitely know the stereotype. And I think it comes into play a lot when dealing with authority. There’s a way to disqualify a black man’s perspective by writing it off as angry or somehow violent in that way and I think approaching Jackson’s role — I’m not an angry person, I’m actually pretty calm most of the time — so I just feel like there’s a certain way that he was not seen as respectable or credible in many ways.
P: What kind of research did you all have to do?
MN: I wasn’t in the country at the time when Obama first won, I was actually still in Jamaica and I was in high school [Nugent came to the U.S. at age 16]. For my research, I had to speak to someone who actually went out and went door to door to campaign for Obama. He mentioned that a lot of African Americans at the time didn’t feel OK with going campaigning because they didn’t want to scare people in the community. And I feel like as Valerie, it’s the same thing we heard what she said to Brian: “You can imagine how fun New Hampshire was for me, like when I was trying to campaign for him.” In New Hampshire, being a single black female walking around door to door, I can just imagine how scary that would be.
AJ: I researched stereotypes for Asians. And you know, growing up, I just fit the stereotype of doing well in school. I just actually was not aware of a lot of the other things that, you know, people associate with Asian women like the whole like, you know, being a sex vixen or just being somebody who takes advantage of the man you know, uses her husband for money. I always just heard, you know, “You’re Asian, you’re supposed to do well in school,” and I was just like, “OK, I guess I’ll do that.” And so I didn’t really recognize that because I fit the stereotype, but I didn’t recognize how the stereotypes affected people who didn’t fit.
P: So transitioning into that dinner scene where you all come together at the end and have the discussion concerning Brian’s work, is there anything in particular that really stood out about that scene?
EMJ: One of the moments that was important was when we look at Jackson and Valerie’s relationship and how it comes — like, although it is pretty rough, it comes together in that scene a little bit. And the way that happens is through a shared experience of being black. That whole inside joke that goes on between them is something that allows them to reach each other on sort of an emotional level and that’s what is able to bring those two characters back together.
P: And do you feel like having that shared experience between two African American characters was intentional on the playwright’s part?
EMF: I think the fact that she has this black man and black woman working to try and figure it out. Even if it may not be perfect, it is no mistake at all. What that speaks to, is like even though we have these struggles of our own, we still have a shared experience that can unify us for the better. And we can. It may be hard for me to be a black man and move through this world on my own, as for you as a black woman, but if we do it together it will be a little bit easier for the both of us, and I think that she actually absolutely had intentions behind that.
P: And even in this shared experience through blackness and black versus white, we also had Ginny as the Asian. How do you think the playwright was able to really capture that idea of Asians and the model minority being seen on the outside of conversations about race and racism in America?
AJ: So the big thing right now, the conversation is the black and the white, and as a model minority, we don’t speak out and we just kind of let that happen. I was not even aware that I was allowed to be a part of the race conversation because nobody ever asked me to be a part of it. It wasn’t until I read this play and started working on it that I was like, “Oh my goodness, I am also allowed to have a voice and I should also be able to speak up.” And I realize I didn’t mind that I wasn’t a part of the conversation, but there are people who do.
P: Is there anything you want people to understand about this play that we didn’t discuss?
BD: I think it was Thoreau who said something like, “I see men everywhere hacking at the branches of evil but none hacking at the root,” and I think that this what Lydia Diamond meant. I think that message that we also hope promulgated was to, quite literally, set a stage for a conversation. And while there were those moments that you definitely want people to just be rendered speechless, you also want to ensure that not only does the audience laugh, but that their car ride home wasn’t a silent one.