“Smart People,” a play written by Lydia Diamond and directed by Desdemona Chiang, opens at the Long Wharf Theatre on March 15. Centered around issues of race and ethnicity, the play deals with the questions associated with these topics that cannot always be asked in public. The plot of the piece follows a doctor, an actress, a psychologist and a neurobiologist in Cambridge as they respond to racial differences and unconscious biases.
“We hope that our production of ‘Smart People’ will have resonance in New Haven, and help bring to light, in an entertaining and engaging manner, some of the serious conversations that are going on surrounding race and gender issues,” said Steve Scarpa, director of marketing and communications at Long Wharf Theatre.
Chiang said that the original inspiration for the play came from Harvard’s Unconscious Bias Study, which measures a person’s unconscious biases through a series of Implicit Association Test categories such as gender, sexuality, disability and weight. Originally introduced in 1998 by Anthony Greenwald ’59, Debbie McGhee and Jordan Schwartz, the test is designed to measure the strength of a person’s association with certain concepts.
According to Scarpa, the play’s characters are all related to Harvard. These include Valerie Johnston, a young African-American woman who recently graduated from the A.R.T. Institute at Harvard and Jackson Moore, a 28-year-old African-American student at Harvard Medical School.
Ginny Yang, another character in the play, is a middle-aged Chinese-Japanese-American woman who only speaks English. She studies race and identity among Asian-Americans, but even though she speaks perfect English and was born in the U.S., she still encounters bias in the play due to her skin tone.
“The play is bitingly funny and certainly relevant to our times,” Scarpa said.
Hopefully, Chiang said, the play imparts an understanding that unconscious bias is real and needs to be addressed.
Diamond began her work on “Smart People” in 2007. After its 2014 world premiere at the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston, the production had its off-Broadway premiere in January 2016 at the Second Stage Theatre in New York City.
Chiang said that one of her favorite aspects of directing the show was that she had to bring herself into the play. Both the actors and herself brought their own biases and personalities into the play, she said, making it a unique and creative experience.
She added that for others interested in careers in the performing arts, a persistent drive is necessary.
“Be persistent. Have the hunger and grit for [pursuing your dreams],” Chiang said. “Cultivate a strong spirit. If you want it, you have to fight for it.”
“Smart People” will be playing at the Long Wharf Theatre through April 19.