Smart People, a 2016 play by Lydia Diamond, has been staged by several companies around the country. It’s set in 2008, shortly before the presidential election. Four people (and they are the only characters in the play) are connected to Harvard University. One is a surgeon, one is a psychologist, one is an actress, and one is a teaching neuropsychiatrist. All are, to one degree or another, interested in how the brain works. And all four are, to one degree or another, looking for love and affirmation.
But then there’s politics. And politics saturates the characters’ thinking. Only a small part of that politics concerns the presidential election; it almost serves as an unspoken theme off-stage. But there’s academic politics (and what happens when cancel culture rears its head). And there’s what happen when the politics of relationships inserts itself into what might have been love stories. For all of their understanding of how the brain works, for all of their expertise, and for all of their intelligence, the characters of Smart People seem unable to overcome the politics they supposedly know so much about.
Yet these characters are all recognizable. In their own ways, they are all compelling. That isn’t to say a reader of the play finds them sympathetic. Each is disagreeable, the neuropsychiatrist in particular. He’s an academic close to tenure, something of a rainmaker for bringing all kinds of grants and recognitions to his department. He’s looking for what in the brain makes people racist. He himself is “evolved,” as he describes it, and has transcended his own racist leanings. Except he suddenly faces cancel culture for something he says in the classroom.
One doesn’t today expect such a probing treatment of the academic and cultural left, but that’s exactly what Smart People does.
Diamond’s plays include Stick Fly, Harriet Jacobs, Voyeurs de Venus, The Gift Horse, Inside, and The Bluest Eye (a stage adaptation of the Toni Morrison novel). A graduate of Northwestern University, she has taught at DePaul University, Columbia University, and Boston University. She is currently a clinical associate professor of Theatre at the University of Illinois – Chicago.
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