POST: 'Smart People' - such a needed conversation
What'd I experience?
The description of the show was fascinating but when I saw who the director was, it was a must see.
I got the pleasure of meeting Kenny Leon through TDF’s Open Doors program, which is how I was introduced to Broadway, as well. I was introduced to a man with many prestigious accolades and an impressive background but I got to know him. The more I got to know him the more I wondered what his shows were like. The Wiz (live on TV) was great but now I was going to actually witness this man’s vision before my very eyes.
I met up with some friends that were also going to see the show because we were all friends with Kenny through Open Doors. The theatre was kind of hidden, but the will call window inside was very cool. I had some time to talk and catch up with friends as we were getting comfortable in our seats.
The stage was interesting. There was a podium in the middle of the stage and behind it were about 4 to 5 seats. The entire stage looked like it was made out of smooth/light pine wood. The balcony to my left was interesting too, surrounded by metallic walls with a panoramic window view. I wonder what the experience was like from up there. Behind and above the podium there was a large white screen, immediately I looked up and saw a projector. Going by my recent experience in college, it felt like I was attending a seminar or getting ready to hear a speech/lecture, except we didn’t have any desk in front of us. I went into the show not knowing a lot about it but the actors looked familiar. I’m sure I've seen them in something... ANYWAYS.
THE SHOW THEN BEGINS! A bunch of pictures show up on the screen of people from different ethnicities. The year was 2007 and the location is Boston, Massachusetts. Brian White (a white guy and yes, that is ALSO his last name) was teaching a class at Harvard… I was right. He was pretty harsh. He called out three names that passed the last exam and seemed to have been understanding the content better than anyone else in the class - they were the only students in the class that weren’t white. He then began to insult the rest of the class using vocabulary that made the shots seem subtle when they were in fact very impudent (not). As he is speaking, I am introduced to the other characters all at the same time and they are all in situations that are part of their everyday frustrations. I feel like I have to pay REALLY close attention to this dialogue because the vocabulary is STRONG!
- Jackson is a doctor of African American descent and is having an argument with his boss for cutting a toe off of a patient even though the patient needed it.
- Valerie is an actress fresh out of college of African descent (as well) and is having trouble cooperating with her director at rehearsal.
- Ginny is a psychiatrist of Asian descent and is with a patient that's having trouble speaking English during a session.
This play gave me a roller coaster kind of feeling. I’m talking about that the slow roll up to the clouds… stops at the top and a long wait until a fast way down, no loops just straight down.
Next scene. We get to see Valerie outside of rehearsal in a dress over a tank top wearing boots smoking a cigarette on the phone with her mother asking her for rent money. I was looking at this woman like “I know this girl from somewhere" and once I really listened to her voice... it clicked… "That’s THE TESSA THOMPSON - DEAR WHITE PEOPLE, WHEN A STRANGER CALLS, SELMA, CREED…ETC!!!!" I was having a mini heart attack in my seat with the biggest smile on my face. Now I felt guaranteed that this was going to be gooooood.
Next scene. Brian White and Ginny Chang are on stage together and they are flirting with each other and having one of the most intellectually complex conversation I have ever heard…but, my man got that number at the end of the day.
Next. Valerie is in a hospital because she got hit by a flat (background to a scene). She was gushing blood from her head and everything. I felt her pain as an actress, that is the money maker people!! Jackson played it smooth and at the end of the day… my man got that number, too.
Each pair went to dinner. Jackson and Valerie's date did not go as well as Brian and Ginny's date. At first it was great, they had dinner at his place, then they had intercourse, then they talked. They covered their careers and the part they play in the African American community. Jackson let some things slip... stating that she “spread her legs prematurely because he was a doctor”. They left on bad terms but Valerie became a major supporter of the Obama campaign to show that she was doing something for her people.
I didn’t laugh as often in the beginning but toward the end of the first act the laughs began to burst out. There was a real issue being addressed here...
Brian White was working on a study to prove that all white people are racist. This seemed utterly preposterous to prove yet sooooo many amazing points were made as to why this made sense. At the end of the day this man was going to be eaten alive by the nation. Valerie, Jackson, and Ginny all had a problem with his study (they all got to meet one another towards the end btw) and they made points that led to the same conclusion: it was going to be too biased at the end of the day. The university finally got tired of Brian’s shit and fired him. So, he invited all his friends over for a pity party. Little did I know, I was still rolling up the roller coaster about to hit the top.
Then it happens, they are all in the same room at the same time. FOUR HUGE EGOS. Valerie and Jackson don’t know they’re about to meet again. Valerie has been doing some side jobs for Brian and they became good friends with each other but little does Brian know that this is Jackson’s “Crazy Girl Val”. Jackson is really against Brian’s study. In an attempt to try and cheer up Brian they each try to sympathize towards him and comfort him. Giving their all to reason with the man so he won’t feel so bad. Brian has an illustrious background, so he won’t have problem finding a job. He is just upset over the simple fact that he has been getting shit from the very people he is trying to help - that is, the minorities in this country - by proving a point... that cannot possibly be proven… who says it’s wrong? Who says it's right? It just cannot be proven.
I myself cannot do this argument justice. It is appalling, yet such a needed conversation. There were so many powerful lines like “I’m the white guy from Harvard” and “You're being treated like n***a”. Brian had an amazing monologue and so did Jackson (we’re going down that coaster, by the way), and then we finally get to hear from… Ginny Chang who states that she has been forgotten in the conversation stating that “she will just sit quietly in the corner of that table”. I EVEN FORGOT SHE WAS THERE.
After such a dexterous climax. Jackson left dinner with Valerie. Brian lost a friend. Valerie and Ginny became good friends. Time goes by and the next scene was the inauguration of President Obama on January 9, 2008. Valerie was in Washington talking to Ginny on the phone as Ginny watch the inauguration from the TV, next to BrIan as he continued his study. Jackson was also watching it from home as he was speaking to his proud sobbing mother through the phone and it ended with the images that were presented in the beginning with the different kinds of people projected on the screen then blackout.
I was left in awe. I could barely speak. My mind was racing with so many thoughts and I thought that was the end of my night...NOT JUST YET. As I was going outside, I checked my email and it looked like Kenny was not going to make it. I was a bit disappointed but I guess one of my friends was in on it and she stalled for a bit outside the theatre until I looked back and saw Kenny walking out of the theatre.
I haven’t been this excited to see Kenny since we first met him. Again to see this man’s work on stage was a blessing. I greeted him with a hug to somehow show my love and appreciation. It was great to relive some of my great Open Doors memories of watching my first Broadway shows with this very group.
He began to catch up with us and told us a bit of the thought process that went into his direction of this play. I found it interesting how he purposely made the stage plain so that there wouldn’t be much to get distracted by and the audience would focus more on the dialogue. I even forgot this was a preview so everyone is still working on it. He’s thinking about adding more visuals (I don’t want to give it all away). He then said “come on”… I knew this was coming but I just couldn’t come to grips.
We went back inside and we took the elevator up stairs……………. This was one of the most electrifying moments in my life…………... I was trying so hard to keep it together. We went to the dressing rooms and there Kenny introduced us to all four actors, he left, and we were there to freely ask them anything we wanted. I first met Joshua Jackson who played Bryan White.
Yes, the Joshua Jackson from Fringe, Dawson’s Creek, etc…I ask him how he dealt with a character that is surrounded by so much controversy and fighting a war that is bigger than himself. He told me that it was definitely a difficult character to tap into but he was already halfway there as a person when he was first introduced to the character, claiming his mental state was not too far from the character's plea. To fully take in the other half he just needed a good director and real chemistry from his castmates.
I then met Mahershala Ali who played Dr. Jackson and Ann Son who played Ginny Chang. Then I met Tessa Thompson. Meeting Ms. Thompson is one of the major highlights of my life. I admired the powerful roles she continues to master and I told her I appreciate her for bringing self awareness with the characters she's recently been portraying.
One thing I was really interested in know was her take on the scene with herself and Jackson where he is downsizing her by saying that he is saving lives and questioning her contribution as an actress. She said that she did not go to college herself and that the character was very relatable. It just comes down to what you want.
She basically said to follow your dreams but only if you believe they are reachable. To hear that from Tessa Thompson was incredible. I need those kinds of moments to remind me why I am pursuing the arts as a profession. Not only is it possible but I can be in her shoes one day and create things that can inspire. I got in the elevator with my friends after our discussion with her and completely went crazy in that elevator. I have never been starstruck before in my life but this was just a completely overwhelming night.
On our way home my friends and I decided to speak about the play, discuss the issues that were addressed in it, and scenes that stood out to us. We were all of different ethnicities so I was really interested on their personal experience with discrimination because of their skin color or race. My friend Katrina was upset after the show because she realized that even though we went through two terms with a black president racism is still alive and well and that was a side of reality we couldn't wrap our heads around.