That old Black ‘Magic’

By John Lyle Belden

The term “Magical Negroes” was popularized by celebrated film director Spike Lee as a critique of how non-white characters were still being used in movies just as they had been in stories throughout history. The trope has its roots in racism and the historic identification of the “other” as something different than regular humanity – when not a lesser-than, such as “lazy” stereotypes, they ironically become stronger, wiser, or actually magical compared to the Whites around them, with their sole purpose in the story to help the “normal” protagonist to win the day. Mammy in “Gone With the Wind” or Bagger in “The Legend of Bagger Vance” are cited as prime examples, as well as John Coffey in “The Green Mile” and even Whoopi Goldberg’s Oda Mae in “Ghost.” Note how Hollywood has rewarded such roles with Oscar nominations and statuettes.

Black queer playwright Terry Guest can’t help but mess with old tropes, revealing the much older, darker and more powerful magic that lies beneath. Southbank Theatre Company presents Guest’s “Marie Antoinette and The Magical Negroes,” directed by Kelly Mills. Just as arguably the White majority distorts history, a “Tribe” of embodied Black stereotypes twists it back the other way. “This is not history!” the troupe declares, but between their prism and the one we were exposed to in school, maybe we’ll see the light of truth.

Marie (Haley Glickman) and her husband King Louis XVI (Josh Cornell) of France were actual historical figures. Remembered unkindly, they weren’t necessarily evil, just very spoiled and inept. If anyone could use a dark-skinned savior, it’s these two – but magic doesn’t necessarily work that way.

The Tribe are: carefree Jim Crow (Ron Perkins), crafty Sambo (Bra’Jae’ Allen), nurturing Mammy (Kellli Thomas), ambitious Sapphire (Anila Akua), and aggressive Savage (Tommy Gray III). Being timeless, they hop around the time stream a bit, so we see the Crow in President Kennedy or the Mammy in Ida B. Wells. In the Court of Versailles, Mammy is Marie’s faithful lady-in-waiting and fellow noble Anna de Noailles; Sambo is Anna’s lady-in-waiting Charlotte, a put-upon servant aching to join the protests outside; Sapphire is Catherine, the idealist who believes she can rise thought the palace ranks and effect change from the inside; and Crow is Swedish nobleman Axel von Fersen, in love with the Queen and seeking to aid her escape.

The magic here is subtle, though the cast did get some tips and a couple of props from local magician Taylor Martin. More important than a couple of visual tricks, there is the spirit of Mother Africa, and when the Tribe dances and turns – well, don’t be surprised if someone loses their head.

Glickman is exceptional in giving the many sides of a figure misunderstood even in her own day, from the child bride to the woman in a gilded cage. Marie didn’t actually say, “let them eat cake,” but she very well could have – a sentiment more borne of cluelessness than disdain. In an ironic reversal of the Black characters lacking depth or backstory, poor Louis is the most two-dimensional character in the piece, but Cornell does a good job of expressing the monarch’s constant frustration with his job and the lack of respect his hard work (in his view) gets.

The Tribe members each work outward from their archetypes to give us persons rather than caricatures – an antidote to the overdone stereotypes where they’re usually found. Thomas as Mammy/Anne isn’t just being motherly and wise for its own sake, or Marie’s; she wants to save her own life as well. Perkins as Crow/Axel isn’t self-sacrificing, either, showing genuine concern as he presents a way out, but with a price. Allen exudes the only-taking-so-much-of-this attitude, and when the dust is finally settled, trickster Sambo has the last surprise. In other eras, Akua brings the Haitian Revolution to life, and Gray reminds us, for any who still haven’t gotten the message, that Black Lives Matter.

This is one of those theatrical experiences that’s supposed to make you feel a bit uncomfortable – those involved would be concerned if you weren’t. Right up until the end, I wasn’t sure how this unconventional history lesson was going to come together to an appropriate conclusion. But when the lights finally came up, I reflected on it all and thought, OK, I see it now.

You should see it, too. “Marie Antoinette and The Magical Negroes” runs through Sunday at the Fonseca Theatre, 2508 W. Michigan St., Indianapolis. Get information and tickets at southbanktheatre.org.

‘Fade’ reflects insider view of ethnic struggle in showbiz

By John Lyle Belden

The play “Fade,” presented by Fonseca Theatre Company, is not a true story, but contains an immense amount of truth.

It is based on the experiences of playwright Tanya Saracho, who, like her character Lucia, is a Mexican-born writer who worked in Chicago and got an opportunity to write for television in Los Angeles. Saracho went from being a “diversity hire” in the room that wrote cable series “Devious Maids” all the way to Shondaland, a writer and co-producer on “How to Get Away with Murder.”

We meet Lucia (Lara Romero) at the beginning of that journey, where the all-white-male writing team call her “Loosha” (not “lew-see-ah”) and think of her as little more than the coffee-fetcher and a translator for show-runner John to talk to his maid. We don’t see the co-workers but know them through Lucia’s conversations with janitor Abel (Ian Cruz; by the way, the Latinx character is pronounced “Ah-beel”).

People are people, so rather than have an instant “you and me against the world” bond, Lucia and Abel initially clash, each making class and ethnic assumptions about the other. She grew up with wealth, which he immediately senses, but she doesn’t consider herself “rich,” especially now in starving-writer mode. And Abel has a far more complex backstory than she could have suspected. In fact, Lucia realizes, it’s the kind of story that would look great on TV.

The play is a sly commentary on class, stereotype, tone-deaf Hollywood, and its ambitious culture. Lucia wants to change this place, but how much will it change her?

Romero ably portrays the likable go-getter feeling out of her element from the get-go. She comes across as smart yet needing to absorb some hard lessons. Cruz channels his paternal side (he’s the Dad of his “zoo” offstage) to bring an earnest gravatas to a surprisingly complex character. He knows what life can do to a person, now he’s witnessing the dark side of showbiz.

Assistant stage manager Chris Creech appears briefly, and as a Maintenance worker executes smooth scene changes.

Note the play is in “Spanglish,” reflecting natural conversations between two bilinguals in a mixed culture. However, Spanish phrases are translated or understandable in context. Direction is by Fonseca Producing Director Jordan Flores Schwartz.

Performances of “Fade” run through June 12 at the FTC Basile stage, 2508 W. Michigan St., Indianapolis. Get information and tickets at fonsecatheatre.org.

IRT presents powerful ‘Reclamation’

By John Lyle Belden

Names have power.

This is one of the oldest truths of both the supernatural/spiritual world and human society in general. A name is more than just a convenient personal label. You carry expectations and the weight of history in the words that signify your identity.

Thomas Jefferson was and is a very powerful name. It holds immense significance not only to the nation he helped create and lead, but also to the people whom he was related to, owned as property – and both.

The author of the Declaration of Independence and father of the University of Virginia is long gone when two men come to visit the grounds of Monticello, formerly the Jefferson plantation. While the new play, “The Reclamation of Madison Hemings” by Charles Smith, in its world premiere at the Indiana Repertory Theatre, is a speculative recreation of the actions and conversations of James Madison Hemings and Israel Gillette Jefferson in 1866, these were both real men. They were born into slavery on that plot of land, and later, one freed by the former President’s will and the other by self-purchase, would come to reside near each other in Ohio. They gave first-hand recollections of their lives to a newspaper in 1873.

Another important name to remember is Sally Hemings, slave and “concubine” to Thomas Jefferson and mother of several children by him, including Madison.

In Smith’s play, Madison (Brian Anthony Wilson) and Israel (David Alan Anderson) have returned to Monticello, a run-down place with an absent caretaker – the only resident being the blind mule we hear braying offstage. Both have come looking for something. Israel hopes to find the lost grave of Sally Hemings, to thank her spirit for the kindness she gave him as a house-servant in his youth. He also hopes for news of his brother,* auctioned away from him, as were other family members, when Jefferson died deep in debt. Madison wants, at long last, something that is due to him. He thinks it must be inside that neglected mansion where he grew up, son of the master but still a slave.

A familiar face to IRT patrons, Anderson gives another wonderful performance, believably fitting into the skin and personality of Israel. He lends earnestness to his story of how he decided to assume the power of the name of the man who considered him property, and easily wears the pain of longing for a glimpse of his lost family – a brother, a child, any of them.

Wilson makes a welcome return to Indy as a man just as stubborn – and in his own way, blind – as the old mule. He portrays the firm confidence of a man on a mission, circumstance be damned. But will taking the mansion’s old wooden front doors, which he helped build but never had the privilege of entering the house through, be enough “reclamation” to soothe his soul?

Being light-skinned, Wilson reflects the fact that both Madison’s father and mother Sally’s father were white (odd irony for a society that supposedly abhorred miscegenation). In fact, other Hemings children opted to pass into White society. In their conversation, Madison and Israel refer to this as “passing over” – a euphemism we usually associate with death.   

Through bouts of November rain and cold, and flashes of anger and humor, we get these men’s story, their frustrations, and their desire to see something better from a country that has wronged them so deeply. The recent Civil War affirmed their freedom but granted little else. We also discover the power of other names, of the many people who built the estate and died on these lands, power that recharges with every utterance of their names out loud. In the end, we find these two men were never alone.

Veteran director Ron OJ Parson brings together a powerful performance. Scenic Designer Shaun Motley’s realistic rustic set is perfectly balanced by Projections Designer Mike Tutaj’s images of the iconic Monticello mansion that flow from impressionistic to photo-real as befitting the drama before them.

Performances of this powerful work run through April 16 at the IRT, 140 W. Washington St., Indianapolis. Get information and tickets at irtlive.com.


*CORRECTION: Original post gave incorrect relation to the character

Phoenix: Coming of age in home haunted by history

NOTE: “The Magnolia Ballet” is not a “ballet” in the conventional sense. The Google/Oxford definition of ballet is “an artistic dance form performed to music using precise and highly formalized set steps and gestures.” This drama, the world premiere of a new play by Terry Guest at the Phoenix Theatre through April 10, is neither a musical nor danced-through, but displays its own rhythm as it deals with codified steps in a society long steeped in restrictive tradition. — JLB

By Wendy Carson

Ghosts exist, whether you believe in them or not. They are especially prevalent in the South where so much pain and struggle caused by slavery, racism, and general prejudices have caused countless souls unrest.

Young Ezekial (Isaiah Moore), “Z,” the sixth of his name, knows these ghosts all too well. Descended from slaves who bought freedom, only to be pressed into servitude again, they haunt his days and nights. His best friend Danny (Andrew Martin), has different issues — a mix of pride and shame in his family heritage of slave-owners, lynchers, and KKK members. 

The two families have long lived next to each other in rural Georgia in a tentative peace, but the current generation are close enough to be brothers. In fact, Z and Danny have apparently shared a lot.

Ezekial’s widower father (Daniel Martin), doesn’t think his son should be spending so much time away from the homestead and the endless chores needed for upkeep. While he’s not an outwardly affectionate man, he tries to do his best for his son. 

As the boys are working on a school project about the Civil War, Z is urged by his father to look through the shed for some of his grandfather’s old papers to help out. There he finds a trove of love letters that will forever change his life, showing him he has much more in common with Grandfather Ezekial than he imagined.

Floating throughout the story is an Apparition (Eddie Dean), ever-present and mostly observing rather than interfering. 

Moore is superb in his portrayal of a gay youth who just wants to enjoy his life and childhood. He brings out the joys and frustrations of the character, especially his quest to discover the truth of the letters and their author.

Daniel Martin gives a delicate performance as a father trying to do the best for his son by instilling in him a fierce work ethic while hardening him to the truth of the world. He also makes a delightful cameo as Danny Mitchell’s (white) father. 

Andrew Martin shows Danny as a simple country boy who, while not ashamed of his racist background, seems to not even notice that his best friend is black. While insisting he is not gay in the slightest, he does have a deep love for his friend that challenges his admonitions.

Dean ably takes on the role of the glue that holds this narrative together, the spirit of past and present that, in their own way, calls the tune of this “dance.”

In the first step of a National New Play Network Rolling Premiere (it will later be staged afresh in New York and Michigan), director Mikael Burke makes both subtle and bold choices, from the way Z shifts his demeanor between having to “man up” and being himself, to the thematic use of “outrunning the fire.” Kudos also to fight/intimacy choreographer Laraldo Anzaldua, and set design by Inseung Park. 

Designated “Part 1” of a planned trilogy, this “Magnolia Ballet” is a complete story with much to say, think upon, and discuss. Find the Phoenix at 705 N. Illinois, Indianapolis; find information and tickets at phoenixtheatre.org.

Important ‘Mountaintop’ in the hills of Bloomington

By Wendy Carson

On April 3, 1968, the night before the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death by assassination, he gave one of his most famous speeches. Known as, “I have been to the Mountaintop”, it encourages people to wonder what would happen to them if they didn’t act in service to others, rather than what would happen to them if they did. 

He speaks of traveling through history and witnessing numerous times of oppressed peoples overcoming their struggles. He reminds us of what we have already been through and how we can continue to overcome poverty and injustice by working together to support one another. 

However, he also speaks about his near-death experience from a knife attack years earlier and how a mere sneeze could have killed him. He references the constant barrage of death threats that he endures each and every day. He acknowledges that he will not always be there to continue the fight for justice and equality. Yet, he assures us that he knows that what he has begun will continue on after he is gone.

This speech, its message, and King’s life are the inspirations for Katori Hall’s play, “The Mountaintop,” presented by Cardinal Stage in Bloomington. 

King (Michael Aaron Pogue) retires to his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis to try and get some rest while working on his next speech. He sends a friend to get him some cigarettes to help with this mission. After calling down to the front desk for room service, his coffee is delivered by Camae (AshLee “PsyWrn Simone” Baskin), a beautiful maid on her first night of her new job. She also brings with her the next day’s paper. With the storm raging outside and his reluctance to be alone, the two engage in a spirited discussion of King’s life, the Civil Rights struggle, and the future. 

Hall pulls no punches in portraying King as an honorable but flawed man. Pogue proudly shows us King’s many great achievements while also regretfully acknowledging his indiscretions and moral failings. He also shows us flashes of future inevitability in his panicked reactions to the claps of thunder which, sounding to him like gunshots, rattle King so.

Baskin shows Camae as a mater-of-fact woman who has no time or desire to mince words and always clearly speaks her mind. She manages to keep the character’s expletive-laden rants light yet never denies the meaning and power behind them. She also skillfully keeps Camae sympathetic once we learn the truth of who it is she is actually working for. 

Director Ansley Valentine brings us a story that reminds us not just of the loss of a great leader for change but also that the struggle is not a sprint, but a relay race, and we are all responsible for our part in it. So, take up the baton, and see this show. 

Performances run through March 20 at the Waldron Arts Center, 122 S. Walnut St., Bloomington. Get information and tickets (“pay what you will” pricing) at cardinalstage.org.

A fresh face on a miscast character

By John Lyle Belden

On a recent evening, we had the opportunity to see, live and in person on Indianapolis’ District Theatre stage, film icon and entertainment legend, the one and only, Mickey Rooney! He was charming, suave and still prone to talking and acting like the old-Hollywood character he was. And for someone who has been dead since 2014, he looked so…

Asian.

J. Elijah Cho presents “Mr. Yunioshi,” a one-man Fringe-style show he created in which he gets into the role of the five-foot-two bigshot, entering the mind of the man who played this show’s title character in the 1961 motion picture, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”

Yunioshi, an ethnic-Japanese photographer, was altered for comic effect from a character in the original Truman Capote book. In a move that even got mixed reviews at the time, director Blake Edwards had the very white Rooney portray the role in heavy makeup, large glasses and buck teeth, with a heavy stereotypical accent. In recent decades this flaw in an otherwise lauded film is held up as an egregious example of Hollywood “Yellowface.”

Cho’s Rooney has no racist intent at all, exhibiting a charming cluelessness that is made easier to swallow by seeing an Asian face giving the excuses. Also, we witness an extraordinary talent that gives us, not a tit-for-tat caricature of the offending actor, but a respectful tribute to the man. Cho also slips into moments of Capote and Edwards, as well as Mickey’s all-time best friend, Judy Garland. Cho (and Rooney) even try on classic Japanese film star Toshiro Mifune in a vain attempt to lend Mr. Y. some authenticity.

This show is both a charming window into 1960s Hollywood and an exploration of how it could get something so embarrassingly wrong. In the end, Cho steps out in front of his character to say that the next non-martial-arts Asian leading man could be standing right in front of us – or at least the next Mickey Rooney.

As no one is making an Andy Hardy reboot anytime soon, Cho, with producers Ari and David Stidham, will continue making appearances in “Mr. Yunioshi.” Having recently performed in Los Angeles and New York, he could pop up anywhere. Get details at mryunioshi.com.

ALT: ‘Admission’ of difficult truths

By John Lyle Belden

You can tell the play is going to be problematic when you have five white actors talking about race. And if this bugs your liberal sensibilities, buckle in for the ride that is “Admissions,” the drama by Joshua Harmon presented by American Lives Theatre.

Sherri (Bridget Haight) is the head of Admissions at a posh New England prep school. Her mission, over the years since she took the job, has been to increase the diversity of the student body, which was overwhelmingly white even by New Hampshire standards. And she is SO close to her goal of 20 percent People of Color! Her near-retirement assistant, Roberta (Suzanne Fleenor) isn’t making it easy, though, as the photos in the new recruiting catalog are nearly all populated by White people.

But what of the basketball picture, Roberta pleads, frustrated at the countless hours already put in on the book. Next to Sherri’s son Charlie, there’s his half-Black best friend. But Perry doesn’t present as Black in photographs, Sherri replies.

Roberta pleads for clarity on her literally black and white mission, growing tense as Sherri – ever woke – continues to give instructions in euphemisms. Finally, our license-to-be-blunt-because-she’s-old says “more dark-skinned people, got it” and goes on her way.

But this play is about more than an obscure publication being sent to scholarship families in the Bronx. We find later from Perry’s mom, Ginnie (Valerie Nowosielski), that the young man has been accepted to Yale University. Charlie (Matthew Conwell), who also applied to Yale – his dream school, and as his parents insist only an Ivy League school will give him success – did not gain acceptance.

When Charlie finally gathers his wits enough to come home that evening, he is still very, very, very, very, very not good with this. Having already entered his senior year passed over for editor of the school paper for a less-capable girl, this situation has brought him to a breaking point. So, he vents in a paint-peeling rant to his mother and father, Bill (Larry Sommers), the prep school’s headmaster. After the boy storms off to his room, Bill – the kind of middle-aged man who believes he’s scrubbed every bit of racism and privilege from his soul – utters, “that’s it; we’ve raised a Republican.”

But the bitter joke is on Bill and Sherri when Charlie finally sorts through all the contradictions of his life and takes action on his own. Suddenly, a few photos in a magazine are the least of their problems.

Director Chris Saunders and the cast pull no (metaphorical) punches, as Harmon’s drama reveals that “admission” has more than one definition – and both are difficult. This hard look at liberal hypocrisy could raise concerns that conservatives may view it with, “See, I told you so!” However, I don’t see a lot of folks on that side of the spectrum wanting to attend – and what of when their critiques have a valid point? We can’t work our way out of complex situations with the same simple thinking that got us into them.

The strong performances make this worth the challenge to view; and as you wonder if the characters learned anything by the end of the play, consider: did you?

Remaining dates are Jan. 20-30 at the IndyFringe building, 719 E. St. Clair in downtown Indianapolis. Get info at americanlivestheatre.org and tickets at indyfringe.org.

Catch the spirit of Civic’s ‘Color Purple’

By John Lyle Belden

The Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre is helping bring live audiences back in a big way with the Tony-winning musical “The Color Purple.”

For those unfamiliar with the acclaimed Alice Walker novel, or the Oscar-nominated Stephen Spielberg film (starring Whoopi Goldberg), this complex and dark coming-of-age story is difficult to justly describe. From a book by Marsha Norman with music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray – directed for the Civic by Michael J. Lasley with musical direction by Teneh B.C. Karimu – “The Color Purple” is challenging and disturbing, yet uplifting and life-affirming. This is one of those musicals where it’s best to just go and see for yourself the pain and triumph, and have the soulful voices wash over you. Whether or not God is in this place, or even with our heroine Celie, his Spirit has no doubt taken notice.

A lot happens in the story, so the musical keeps the characters, their motivations and actions mostly sung-through, up front with some handy chairs the only necessary props. Early 20th-century rural Georgia is more evoked than shown. The chorus starts out singing to the Lord, while Celie (Bridgette Michelle Ludlow) essentially asks if the Creator has forsaken her. Life with her abusive father (Bradley Alan Lowe) is so bad, that marriage to whip-toting Mister (Troy T. Thomas) is marginally better.

Though descended from slaves, Mister considers every person on his land his property, even his children. He frequently reminds Celie she is “ugly” and berates young son Harpo (Brenton Anderson) for being kind-hearted. At least Celie’s sister Nettie (Kendra Randle) manages to escape, promising to write to her from wherever she goes – but Mister intercepts the letters, letting Celie think she is alone in the world.

A strong-woman example comes into Celie’s life in Harpo’s bride Sofia (Rachel Bibbs), who will herself find the limits of standing up to authority in that era. We also meet the magnetic Shug Avery (Ashlee Baskin), the singer who is Mister’s one weakness, and who shakes things up even more than expected by befriending Celie. The large cast also features Miata McMichael as sweet Squeak, and Rayanna Bibbs, Tiffany Gilliam and Alexandria Warfield as the Church Ladies – this culture’s equivilant of a Greek Chorus.

Performances are solid, including Ludlow’s perseverance, Baskin’s complexity, Anderson’s charm, Rachel Bibbs’s full-throated attitude, and Thomas’s complete character arc.

Though bad times come frequently, there are genuine moments of joy and laughter, music in the juke-joint, colorful fabrics, and without spoiling, I’ll note that a measure of justice is meted out.

See – and feel – “The Color Purple” through Oct. 23 at the Tarkington theater in the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. Get info and tickets at civictheatre.org or thecenterpresents.org.

IndyFringe: Being Black: The Play – The Life

This is part of IndyFringe 2021, Aug. 19-Sept. 5 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at IndyFringe.org.

By Wendy Carson

The show begins with a young lawyer being called by his buddy to go downtown to protest the George Floyd killing. He’s about to go but his psychiatrist wife begs him not to. He’s got kids and responsibilites and while ten or twenty years ago they would have been leading the charge, they need to work for change in a different way.

We shift to a woman landing her dream job because her qualifications were beyond belief, her test scores were off the charts and everyone loved her at the interviews. As she begins filling out her hiring package she is then told that the comapany wants her to change her hairstyle to something less “ethnic”. We she balks she is notified that this is a non-negotiable requirement.

Now the smooth talking DJ on WBLK is playing love songs when he gets a call from his baby sister. She things his soul is in danger because he plays secular music on the radio. He tries to defend his choices by illustrating that Jesus was preaching love throughout the bible but she refuses to hear him. Later he is almost arrested at a coffee shop for refusing to give up his seat to a white customer (even though they are the only ones in the shop).

Mike, our lawyer’s buddy from before, ends up shot during the protest because he tried to hit on a girl and she went crazy and started a riot. He bemoans that fact that during his two tours of duty, he never felt so threatened and scared as he did that night. It was like the military declared war on blacks using the same tanks and guns he used to defend the country.

My words here will never convey any of the powerful messages delivered in this show. Your emotions will range from anger, sorrow, horror, laughter and hopefullness. This world needs to change because these stories are far too typical of a day in the life of a black person in America.

Hear their voices, watch their truth and join the fight for real change in our country. “Being Black,” by Vernon A. Williams, is presented by OnyxFest at the IndyFringe Theatre, featuring Grant Berry, Monica Cantrell, Tommy Gray, Ms. Latrice, Deserae Kay, Ricky Kortez, Rav’n Partee, and Leonard Harris.

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).