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Smart People’: An Examination of Race and Identity Before Obama’s Win

"Smart People" Opening Night - After Party

NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 11: Mahershala Ali, Kenny Leon, Lydia R. Diamond, Tessa Thompson, Anne Son, artistic director Carole Rothman and Joshua Jackson attend the Off-Broadway Opening After Party for 'Smart People' at the Four at Yotel on February 11, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Walter McBride/Getty Images,) Walter McBride

While the nation shifts attention to the complexities of the upcoming presidential election, a new off-Broadway production dives headfirst into knotty issues of race, class and gender just before President Obama’s historic win.

Smart People, by playwright Lydia R. Diamond (Stick Fly) explores the very human themes of love, identity and achievement through the lens of four diverse characters. Set in Cambridge, Massachusetts during 2008, four Harvard intellectuals try to find their way through weighty societal issues and experience a few detours along the way.

“I started writing this play more than eight years ago, before Obama was elected. I had no idea how the conversation about race would elevate, morph and change. This is a play about four very different people who live and work in Cambridge, Massachusetts and how their lives intersect. Not just around race, but around class and sexuality. These actors also happen to be some of the most brilliant minds. They’re such smart actors,” explains Diamond.

Smart People is a departure from the playwright’s earlier Broadway production Stick Fly which was more of a layered family drama. Her latest dives deeply into often-taboo areas of sex, love and politics while infusing heavy doses of humor and humanity.

Tony-Award winning director Kenny Leon (Stick Fly, Raisin in the Sun, The Wiz Live!) reunited with Diamond to bring the story to the stage.

“I was drawn to the play because I don’t feel like we have enough deep, positive conversations that move us forward," said Leon. "Lydia wrote it in a way that allows us to laugh. It’s a comedy. It feels warm and embracing while you are considering all of these social issues. So long after you are in the theatre, you are still thinking about it and asking yourself, “What can I do?’"

"Smart People" Opening Night - After Party
NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 11: Kenny Leon and Lydia R. Diamond attend the Off-Broadway Opening After Party for 'Smart People' at the Four at Yotel on February 11, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Walter McBride/Getty Images,) Walter McBride

Joshua Jackson (The Affair) plays Brian, a noted Harvard neuroscientist whose research and personality causes conflict within his personal and professional life.

Ginny, played by Anne Son (My Generation) is a sharp, witty psychology professor at Harvard who examines racial identity of Asian American women. She is Chinese and Japanese and works with third generation patients who wrestle with issues of race and class as she does within her relationship with Brian and at work with her university colleagues.

One of Brian’s few friends is successful physician Jackson, played by Mahershala Ali (House of Cards) who struggles with the realities of being an African-American male within the competitive medical world. While in the ER, the doctor has a chance encounter with recent MFA grad and aspiring actor Valerie played by Tessa Thompson who is in search of her own identity as an African American woman and artist.

While in the ER, the doctor has a chance encounter with recent MFA grad and aspiring actor Valerie played by Tessa Thompson (Creed, Dear White People) who is in search of her own identity as an African American woman and artist.

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The ensemble of actors bring a diverse collection of acting experience that include stage, film and television credits. Thompson talks about the cast and the experience of bringing the play to life, “I am just in awe of them as actors but also as people. Anytime you’re launching into a piece that talks about social issues you really get to know how your castmates and cohorts feel about the world in which we live. We sat around the first four days of rehearsal mainly just talking about our own personal experiences. We’ve really gotten to know each other.”

Much of the characters’ experiences and storylines mirrored what the actors sometimes see in their own lives, “These are conversations and issues that I am grappling with as a man, at 37 years old in my own life and when you read something that gets to the heart of that - and even gives me some insight on how to navigate these waters- I found that really compelling. And now to be here with the players, with the director and get into these discussions has been magical,” offers Jackson.

Smart People is at Second Stage Theater until March 6th.