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Even Smart People Get Tongue-Tied About Race

Date: Feb 05, 2016

Lydia Diamond ponders the impact of Obama's presidency


As she's discussing her play Smart People -- now at Second Stage – Lydia Diamond pauses in the middle of a thought to describe the scene around her.

Talking on the phone, she says, "I'm in a hotel lobby, and a blond woman just walked by with her little girl, and the girl was holding a black American Girl doll. And then I look up and CNN is on a TV and they're showing Trump. And there's a New York City policeman standing right outside the window. It's this… tableau."

America and all its contradictions! Fittingly, Smart People is an examination of how race plays out in America, especially when combined with ambition and success.

Set on the eve of Obama's 2008 election, the show, which is directed by Kenny Leon, centers on four Harvard intellectuals whose lives intersect around social and sexual politics. For Diamond, this is a natural extension of what's on her mind anyway. "I've been a part of the conversation about race for a long time," she says. "And though my plays have often explored issues of race or class or gender, I've always sought to describe them in universal ways. Like, 'This is a play about friendship.'''

For Smart People however, which Diamond began writing before Obama was elected, she wanted to "experiment with diving head first in and owning the conversation about race."

The play's protagonist is Brian White, a white neuroscientist who has come up with a 'powder keg of a hypothesis' about race. Diamond made a conscious choice to create a white male lead. "I've always wondered what would happen if I had the freedom to write about race without having to do jumping jacks about legitimizing how I talk about it," she says. "I couldn't make myself be a white man, but I could make my protagonist be a white man."

The decision to make Brian white felt audacious to Diamond, yet she observes, "People write outside of themselves all the time." Nevertheless, she adds, "I think it's telling that me as a black woman interacting with this character who is white is a testament to how we talk about race." At this point she quotes Brian, "Trying to work out race in America is like trying to talk about time travel in a summer blockbuster – you can't get it right!"


Still, the characters – who also include an Asian-American woman studying depression, an accomplished black actress, and black surgical resident – try anyway, because to ignore America's relationship to race is to regress.

"When Obama got elected I remember thinking, 'This moment is bigger than anyone knows how to articulate,''' Diamond says, recalling that not long after the election there was a sense that race and race issues had somehow been "solved"' and that the nation was "post-racial."

"I thought that was dangerous, and it bothered me so deeply," she says. "I felt it was my responsibility to name it and show it – that racism continues to exist in our country institutionally and otherwise."

And though America has come a long way in its journey toward civil rights, and perhaps even come a long way since Obama was elected, the seemingly endless string of racially motivated conflicts being reported in the news cannot be ignored. "When Obama got elected we didn't know how this country would respond to having a black president, and we didn't expect Capitol Hill to lose its mind," Diamond says with a rueful laugh.

To that end, though Smart People is set in a historical moment, it seethes with topical urgency. "Things have come to such a head around how we talk about race," Diamond says. "Since Obama has been elected there are newer and bigger ways of hating people in the media. It's fascinating."


Eliza Bent is a writer and performer based in Brooklyn.

Photo of the cast by Matthew Murphy.

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