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).

Monument presents classic commentary on racial tension

By John Lyle Belden

“Dutchman,” presented by Monument Theatre Company, is a play, but it feels like a poem. It is a verse that surrounds you, confronts you in the intimate staging at Indy Convergence. 

On a subway train, in which the audience find ourselves to be passengers, traveling in New York City towards New Jersey, a handsome young black man, Clay (Jamaal McCray), sits reading. A beautiful young white woman, Lula (Dani Gibbs) enters, eating an apple. Is she Eve, the Serpent, or both? 

The monologues and conversation between them roll out like verse, dense with meaning. She teases, both in the sexual and bullying sense of the word. They move together and against one another — a dance rich with subtext. But, what is more shocking: the moments of violence, or the fact that she keeps saying n****r with impunity?

The play by Amiri Baraka is set in the year it was first presented, 1964, but could happen today, with passengers capturing it all on phones. Her short, slinky dress is a hot retro style; his buttoned suit still the best armor to reassure the whites around him that he is “civilized,” that his black life matters. And the tense banter would still apply — even with 56 years of “progress.”

Under the direction of Shawn Whitsell, Gibbs and McCray deliver Baraka’s words with cutting precision. We feel this play as we observe it, as the fascinating drama plays out in one intense hour. Dont’a Stark completes the cast in a quick but essential role.

Remaining performances are Friday through Sunday, Feb. 21-23, at 2611 W. Michigan. Get info and tickets at monumenttheatrecompany.com.

Making Oceania Great Again

By John Lyle Belden

Citizens: Do not look away! You are witnessing a rare insight into Room 101 of the Ministry of Love, where thought-criminal Winston Smith will offer his confession and confront his insanity, his failure to love Big Brother.

This is “1984.” (Your official Ministry of Truth calendar should reflect this.) The plus-good Citizens of Monument Theatre Company are providing you this opportunity, where they expose the troubling writings of George Orwell, as adapted by Michael Gene Sullivan, directed for MTC by David Ian Lee.

Smith, who also purports to be an actor named Nathan Thomas, has written his crimes in a diary which is read and re-enacted by Party Members Riley Leonard, Raven Newbolt, Kim Egan and Deont’a Stark. Thomas naturally embodies a complex patchwork of emotions — broken, yet quietly defiant. Leonard presents the pre-arrest Smith burdened by ennui and desperate for a world that makes sense to him. Newbolt plays Julia, the woman Smith risks all for, so effectively her cohorts start to question her loyalty to the Party. Egan, on the other hand, is a true believer, eager for this trial to move on to condemnation and execution. Stark nicely takes on roles including Party officer O’Brien, who eventually shows up himself, in the body of Michael R. Tingley. Karen Sternberg provides the voice of alerts of victories by Oceania forces and other vital news.

This method of presenting Smith’s criminal activity provides an intense experience in the intimate confines of Indy Convergence. The context is made contemporary by the use of hand-held telescreens (smartphones) and the autocratic atmosphere does feel familiar in the world outside. Perhaps the most chilling aspect is the confidence of Tingley’s O’Brien, aware that his role is not player in this game, but the dealer – and the House always wins.

This Citizen rates this drama as double-plus good.

To avoid potential arrest by the Thought Police, it is advisable to make your way to 2611 W. Michigan St. for the remaining weekend. Information and tickets at www.monumenttheatrecompany.com.