Theater review: True Colors’ ‘Smart People’ earns high marks

Front and center is its not-so-coincidentally named protagonist, Brian White, a (yes) white Harvard professor and neuroscientist who opens the show with one of several highly intelligent lectures, putting forth his experimental theory that racist tendencies may be “genetically driven” and “biologically predisposed.” In an attempt to prove that point, he spends a considerable amount of his time “analyzing data” — but his interactions with the play’s other three characters are just as effective in drawing attention to some of the “sociological implications” of his “scientific methodology.”

They include one of his university colleagues, Ginny Yang, an Asian-American psychologist whose area of expertise involves issues of racial identity and stereotyping, and with whom he eventually develops a romantic relationship. And his best friend, Jackson Moore, is a black surgical intern at a local hospital, a so-called “hothead with a chip on his shoulder,” who, when he isn’t bucking the white establishment on his day job, also moonlights by operating a medical clinic in a lower-class part of town.

At first glance, although she’s clearly no dummy, Valerie Johnston, the aspiring black actress who rounds out the cast of characters, might appear to be out of her (Ivy) league in such heady company. In fact, she actually practices what the others are often preaching about “differentiated variables,” “demographic preferences” and “broadening racial parameters.” For every audition she nails (landing the role of Portia in a “multicultural” version of “Julius Caesar”), she hits a number of brick walls, too (barely given a chance to read for shows with a more “realistic design element”).

The mastermind behind all of these smart people, of course, is playwright Lydia Diamond, who has crafted an exceedingly clever and provocative vehicle for them. To her infinite credit, what could have risked seeming didactic or polemical instead feels utterly natural and authentic.

Her razor-sharp dialogue crackles, and director David de Vries gives the show a fever-pitched pace to match. (True Colors’ Tony-winning co-founder and artistic director, Kenny Leon, mounted an off-Broadway production of the play earlier this year.) You want to savor every comment and action, but between the overlapping structure and breathless execution of the piece — and possibly owing a bit to the acoustics of the Southwest Arts Center space — occasional lines and gestures are lost or obscured in the heat of the moment.

De Vries’ own “design element” is suitably savvy, featuring another slick set by Moriah and Isabel Curley-Clay (different offices and apartments slide back and forth from either side of the stage), and the stylish video projections of Bobby Johnston.

In large part, the four members of the True Colors ensemble are up to the challenge of humanizing their potentially intimidating characters. Neal Ghant is slightly too stoic and bland as the “angry and volatile” Jackson, but New York-based actress Julee Cerda scores delightfully as the chic Ginny. Best of all, Joe Knezevich and Danielle Deadwylerdeliver brilliant, career-defining performances as Brian and Valerie, with dogged determination and effortless charisma to spare.

It’s a terrific show — by and about and for smart people.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.