Out of the Woods: Smart People

Posted November 18, 2020

Smart People Val Jackson

The final installment of APT's latest "Out of the Woods" series will post this Friday, November 20 on the PBS Wisconsin website! Lydia R. Diamond's Smart People.

Lydia R. Diamond's 2014 play Smart People draws us into a series of conversations among four Harvard-educated up-and-comers: surgeon Jackson Moore, actor Valerie Johnston, psychologist Ginny Yang and neuropsychologist Brian White. As their paths cross, they discuss issues of race, sex and politics in the days just before Barack Obama's 2008 election. We chatted with Director and Core Company Actor Melisa Pereyra about what it was like to work on this complex and timely play.

APT: Can you talk about your use of multi media in this play reading, specifically the audio clip at the beginning, and how you decided to utilize that?
Melisa Pereyra: The audio clip at the beginning between James Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni came out of a conversation during rehearsal with the actors. Cassia Thompson, who played Valerie, said one of the conversations she was having with Jackson (played by Rasell Holt), was reminding her of this famous clip - we were discussing the scene Valerie and Jackson have when he treats her badly and Valerie eventually says that it’s basically because he had a bad day at work. There was a similar question on the table, “Why should Valerie have to be the person who Jackson chooses to treat badly at the end of his day?” The conversation is much longer than what we were able to share on audio, but I hope audiences go listen to the whole clip if they haven’t.

Similarly, by putting this conversation next to CanWen Xu’s Ted Talk provided even more context of difficult conversations the East Asian community encounters in the United States .

Because the play would deal with white supremacy and white privilege directly and indirectly, it was important for me to provide context as well as challenge potential worldviews and expectations even before the play began. I wanted to do this with words instead of music. I hoped it would bring nuanced listening from the very beginning.

APT: Multimedia, part 2! How about the images used throughout - what do they represent and how did you select them?
MP: Lydia Diamond is very specific about what she wants the audience to see. It is a social experiment that she is recreating with the audience, which is why it was so important for me to be able to use those images instead of having them simply read. If you have access to JSTOR you can find more information about one of the studies mentioned in the play here. I was able to work with Dramaturg, Writer, and Oral Historian extraordinaire, Yasmin Zacaria Mikhaiel who was able to find all of those images shown at the beginning and cycled throughout the play. Yasmin also helped me find those graphs; the playwright doesn’t mention what data she wants shown, only images. So I was able to decide what data was most important to show. Being as how this would be live-streamed in Wisconsin prior to the election, I wanted to provide data speaking directly to the systems that have marginalized and hurt BIPoC in recent history including police brutality, immigration and voter suppression.

APT: Have you worked on any of Lydia Diamond’s plays in the past? How did you approach this play as a director?
MP: This was my first time working on a Lydia Diamond play. It was important to me to educate myself as much as possible; knowing that I would not be able to bridge my knowledge gap or erase my blindspots by myself. I feel grateful to have enough self-awareness to know at least that. However, my impulse with any play is if I don’t understand a certain nuance, I can look it up. This is not always easy and it can take a long time. However, nine times out of ten it is what helps me hold myself accountable and frees the actors from needing to bridge that cultural gap for me. I feel that’s an integral part of my job as a director and in life, really. I am not always successful, but it is so fulfilling when it works out that way. Besides working with this team of actors, what I loved most about preparing for this play was that in contrast to all the classics, there is so much data available to help us make sense of story. All we have to do is look. Once we have knowledge and context, we can make plans for action. I hope the content of this play helped audiences contextualize whiteness and how it functions in the world.

APT: Can you talk a bit about the cast, and how you all approached the incredibly complex conversations that take place in this play, especially with such little rehearsal time?
MP: It was so important to work in a room with actors who trusted me with their hearts and vulnerability. Because Smart People dealt with conversations about white privilege and white supremacist ideologies, we had to start the conversation there. All the people in the room had to be comfortable with this and there had to be consent on their part.

What is necessary for me to note is that although these conversations might be new to many of the people listening, they have been the experiences of Black and East Asian people in our country for a long time; Valerie (Cassia Thompson), Jackson (Rasell Holt), and Ginny (Amy Kim Waschke) were not wrestling with anything new. So I needed them to be willing to step into possibly triggering situations as their whole selves because the playwright wrote this play with their particular identities in mind. And I needed the role of Brian (Jeb Burris) to be played by someone who understands the power of the space he fills as a white male in the world of the play and obviously the world at large. This awareness and consent from everyone involved in the project helped us get to deeper conversations quickly and respectfully.

Lydia Diamond shows us how these characters survived from day to day in a racialized society; sometimes they stood up for themselves and suffered the consequences, and sometimes they internalized those experiences enlarging their blind spots. Brian (Jeb Burris), on the other hand, used his data on racism to the point where he stopped listening to the people of color surrounding him. I did not have to explain this to the actors because Lydia Diamond is not talking about a foreign land long, long ago. She’s talking about this racialized country both a few elections ago, and today.

APT: What was your favorite thing about working on Smart People?
MP: Did I say the actors yet? It was wonderful to be making art with people I love and admire. Aside from that, it was amazing to work on a play that directly addresses white privilege. It is not something that actors have to tip toe around in the rehearsal room, but rather something that lies at the heart of the play. As a white latinx who does not have a skin color experience, I am excited to see how plays will continue to expand the conversation on race by de-centering whiteness.

The Details
Watch here beginning Friday, November 20 at 7:00 PM Central Time

Featuring Rasell Holt as Jackson Moore, Cassia Thompson as Vanessa Johnston, Amy Kim Waschke as Ginny Yang and Jeb Burris as Brian White.

Voice and Text-Joy Lanceta Coronel
Stage Manager-Jacki Singleton
Sound Designer: Andre Pluess
Dramaturg: Yasmin Zacaria Mikhaiel

*Please note: This play contains adult content.