Diamond’s rough drama gets Monument-al treatment

By John Lyle Belden

Two academics, an actor, and a doctor walk onto a stage.

Thus begins the drama “Smart People” by Lydia R. Diamond, presented by Monument Theatre Company at the Fonseca Theatre Company’s Basile Theatre. We are introduced to our four characters each finding themselves in frustrating circumstances: tenure-track Harvard professor Brian White (Maverick Schmidt) berates his students for not getting the gist of what he sees as obvious conclusions; psychology prof Ginny Yang (Kim Egan) tries to present her research findings, interrupted by trivial questions; aspiring actor Valerie Johnston (Barbara Michelle Dabney) struggles to apply her MFA-informed approach to a Shakespeare role while the director gives her inconsistent, illogical instructions; and Dr. Jackson Moore (Jamaal McCray) answers to an administrator berating him for taking life-saving initiative with a patient over his supervisor’s instructions. Ever feel like people just don’t get what you are trying to say?

Over the course of these two long acts, their four lives somehow weave together (how small was Cambridge, Mass., in 2008?), leading up to a borderline-intervention dinner with the whole cast late in the play. While each person’s niggling frustration continues through the plot, the big controversy is in White’s research, in which he publicly presents that he has biologically quantified “white privilege” (Diamond abandoned subtlety; the professor’s name is only Exhibit A).

The play has a lot to say, and says it, as things progress mainly because that’s how Diamond wrote them, which means I have to give a lot of credit to this foursome in giving their individual characters dimension and some degree of credible life.

It’s an interesting comedy that includes jokes the characters themselves point out aren’t funny. Yet there are some bits of humor, mostly in the same vein as Avenue Q’s “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist” (but without the singing). Mainly we get a series of interesting scenes with thought-provoking points. For instance, White’s rants point out well-meaning white liberals’ self-imposed blindness to their passive racism. But flaws in the research, such as the near-impossible task of defining a singular “white” culture to have this inborn bigotry, get brushed aside. Non-whites other than African-Americans get token mention. In one moment, Yang counsels an off-stage Japanese-American woman who identifies as white – apparently the psychologist’s insistence in this unseen person embracing an Asian identity eventually leads to a suicide attempt, but this plot thread leads nowhere.

One can tell that this play looked awesome in the scripts given to the cast and director Rayanna Bibbs. There’s so much “meat” to chew on as an actor, a wide range of emotions, controversial moments to make your audience do a “wait-what?!” And it all caps off with the then-improbable election of Barack Obama (not a big spoiler). For those reading this who really dig such drama exercises, and the big-issue conversations you’ll have on the way home, “Smart People” could be a smart choice. Even better, Monument is doing a pay-what-you-can season.

So, whether you want to give a donation for the company’s artistic efforts, or you are just a fellow starving artist who can only give what’s in your pockets at the moment, make your reservation at monumenttheatrecompany.org. The play runs through Aug. 15. Find the stage at 2508 W. Michigan, indoors (box office staff are masked).

Hard lessons continue at Fonseca Theatre

By John Lyle Belden

The setting of the play “Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies,” by acclaimed playwright Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm, is “Today.” Says so right there in the program. So this examination of our understanding of race in early 21st Century America is taking place in 2020. Just add masks on all the characters – sadly, no need to change any of the story.

Fonseca Theatre Company brings back this drama from its first season (I wrote about it then, too), again directed by Ben Rose, in the wake of the real-world drama of this tumultuous summer. Rose noted that actor preparation took on a more serious tone this time, and he was grateful to also have Chinyelu Mwaafrika and Joshua Short return to star.

Marquis (Mwaafrika), a suburban teen from posh (mythical) Achievement Heights, outside Baltimore, has gotten caught up in the latest online challenge and is in a police holding cell for trespassing. His cellmate, Tru (Short), fits the conventional African-American stereotype, and is amazed that Marquis doesn’t. Eventually, Marquis’ adoptive limousine-liberal mom Deb (Megan Ann Jacobs) arrives to spring them from the clutches of Officer Borzoi (Keegan Jones). Tru then gets to experience Marquis’s world, with his nice home and all-white classmates at Achievement Preparatory Academy: jocks Hunter (Joseph Mervis) and Fielder (Maverick Schmidt), and top girls’ clique led by Meadow (Vicki Turner) with Prairie (Jacobs) and Clementine (Sarah Ault).

Seeing Marquis as “too White,” Tru fills a notebook with “Being Black for Dummies” in the hope of connecting him with his racial heritage. But the book falls into the wrong hands, with tragic results.

Meanwhile, Marquis dreams of visits by ancient gods – fair-skinned Dionysus (Schmidt), who wants him to take the easy life; and dark-skinned Apollo (Jones), who whispers to him a dark secret.

This show is spiced with a surprising amount of humor, and the production does include a “laugh light” to let you know when it’s safe to react without being racist. However, there are a lot of hard questions and uncomfortable discussions. Also, the characters make an embarrassing number of assumptions, including the fateful conclusions drawn by school Headmaster Burns (Mervis) that sound a lot like your “I’m not a racist, but…” friend when telling you the “truth” about a Black victim of a shooting. Thus does this fictional story connect solidly with our real world; Chisholm’s characters are each simultaneously flesh-and-blood and living metaphor. You know this person; you’ve met this person; you’ve seen this person on the news; you are this person.

The cast do a great job of communicating all this to us through their cloth masks, and with the intimate (yet with seating properly distanced) stage in the backyard of the FTC building, we even hear clearly when the mic-packs sputter. This was an important and enlightening drama already, and today it feels more vital to make the effort to experience. Fonseca staff even have nice masks available for a donation.

All performances are 8 p.m., continuing Saturday, Sunday (Aug. 22-23), and Thursday through Sunday, Aug. 27-30, at 2508 W. Michigan, Indianapolis. Details and tickets at fonsecatheatre.org.