MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Finally today, some hard questions about racism, questions most of us don't really want to ask. Is that something baked into the fabric of American life, a matter of personal preference? Is it just the crutch of ignorant people? Or is it something deep in the workings of just about everybody's brain? This isn't just the subject of a dense academic
paper. It's also the question at the core of a lively and provocative play, the latest by Lydia Diamond. It's called "Smart People," and it follows the interactions of four characters all of whom have some connection to Harvard - smart people - and all of whom also have an interest either personal or professional or both in the subject of race. Set against the backdrop of Barack Obama's first campaign for the presidency, it makes clear the difficulties of talking about race, even among those people who pride themselves on their ability to talk about race.
A new production of the play just started at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., so we thought this would be a good time to talk with Lydia Diamond about it. And Lydia Diamond joins us from member station WBEZ in Chicago. Lydia Diamond, thanks so much for speaking with us.
LYDIA R. DIAMOND: Well, thanks so much for asking me to.
MARTIN: So tell us about the premise of the - one of your central characters. There are four, so they're all central, I guess. Brian White is a neuro-psychiatrist, and he studies patterns of racial identity and perception. So shall we play a clip from him?
DIAMOND: I'd love to hear that.
MARTIN: Here it is. It's Brian White. This is a scene where he is presenting his work to an audience. I guess it would be his colleagues.
DIAMOND: Yeah. You know, an audience of muckety mucks from Harvard.
MARTIN: Ah, OK. Great.
DIAMOND: So it's a high-powered room in which he feels slightly off.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "SMART PEOPLE")
GREGORY PERRI: (As Brian White) We must look at the scientific data and embrace that we, the white people, are implicated. Look - numbers, more numbers. What's that? Cold, hard data. I'm speaking your language. I've proven it's there. It's in our heads. It's in our cells. It's in our [expletive] blood a predisposition to hate. We are programmed to distrust and fear those with more melanin. We aren't effective. We just must understand our brains, except our physiology and acknowledge the social reality that we so virulently deny.
MARTIN: So just to kind of a light evening at the theater there. No big deal.
DIAMOND: It really is a comedy.
MARTIN: A comedy really actually?
DIAMOND: It really is. It will make you laugh.
MARTIN: I can vouch for this, but help us understand what's happening here. And this happens - I do have to tell you pretty early on in the play.
DIAMOND: Yeah. So Brian - his premise and his work is that white people are neurologically, biologically racist, and he is a white person. I think that's important to say. And so the whole play is kind of watching how these four different people - Ginny Yang is Asian-American, half Japanese, half Chinese, Jackson is African-American and Valerie is African-American and just graduated from the ART - and sort of how they bounce off of one another personally. But obviously tangentially about race and how Brian White's very sort of volatile premise is in some ways his undoing.
MARTIN: Well, the other thing that's funny is that Brian and Ginny actually - Ginny Yang who's one - the psychologist, and she's kind of a rock star in her field. She studies depression and anxiety in Asian-American women, and she seems to be having a little bit of anxiety of her own, it has to be said, without giving it all away. But that she and Brian meet at a diversity committee, and that's kind of funny. It doesn't sound funny, but it is actually kind of funny.
DIAMOND: I think it's hilarious if you've ever sat on a diversity committee at a university, and I'm sure they are not so much different from diversity committees anywhere in any kind of work situation. And you go and you talk about how we can, you know, end racism in the institution. But the institution continues to be racist. And the irony of that and sort of how they come together around their mutual awareness of that.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "SMART PEOPLE")
SUE JIN SONG: (As Ginny Yang) Have you done one of these diversity committee things before?
PERRI: (As Brian White) I'm the go-to white guy for these because I study race and, of course, because I care. And you?
SONG: (As Ginny Yang) I generally decline. I don't know. I'm uncomfortable celebrating my marginalization with other disgruntled, marginalized people. It's not my job to make the institution behave appropriately. In truth, I lost a bet with a Middle Eastern man in my department, and I'm a two-can (ph).
PERRI: (As Brian White) Two-can?
SONG: (As Ginny Yang) Two-can, two-can. I proudly represent not one, but two underrepresented populations.
PERRI: (As Brian White) Underrepresented? Really? Because I see your people everywhere.
SONG: (As Ginny Yang) Women?
PERRI: (As Brian White) The Asian people.
SONG: (As Ginny Yang) You're mistaken. My people mostly frequent the hard sciences.
PERRI: (As Brian White) As do I. I can't throw a stone without hitting a - my politics are such that I can make that joke with people who know me.
SONG: (As Ginny Yang) I'll never know you well enough for that to be funny.
MARTIN: It has to be said, though, that the people in this - that the characters think of themselves as liberal or progressive, right? Fair?
DIAMOND: Profoundly, deeply progressive people.
MARTIN: And so...
MARTIN: Yeah. So why do you think that's important?
DIAMOND: Well, there is something about the way those of us who move through the world feeling that we know the answers and are sophisticated around social justice have a certain authority. And I would say there's a way that white liberals - what am I saying? I have sometimes been disturbed at the displays of racism I've seen amongst people who purport to be very, very racially sophisticated and progressive.
And the play isn't critiquing that, but I think the play is aware that that is the dynamic that we all share. Those of us who are also brown, there's a certain authority that we have, and we can become so comfortable in it that we forget to look at ourselves closely.
MARTIN: It is interesting, though, that this is a cultural moment in which white liberals are taking it on the chin. I don't know if you've seen Jordan Peele's movie "Get Out." I can't decide is it a comedic horror film or a horrific comedy film. But it's...
DIAMOND: Yeah. I know.
MARTIN: ...It is funny in parts, and it's frightening in parts. But at the core of it are, you know, white liberals - or people who think of themselves as white liberals but who are actually doing some pretty terrible things. And I just wondered if, you know, why is that? I think people might argue that there are worse people. (Laughter) And I'm wondering why...
DIAMOND: You know, and there are....
MARTIN: ...It is you think white people are taking it on the chin right now?
DIAMOND: Right. I think there are always people who are worse, you know, and I think that a lot of my friends - people I love very much, people in my family - are white liberals. And so the play doesn't have an agenda against white liberals, nor do I think does this moment.
But I think we're becoming more sophisticated, and I think that the stakes just became higher and so we have to look at each other honestly and know that we've absorbed all of this craziness that is race in America. And some of it is racism, and some of it is white privilege. And how that plays out in a very personal way. It's becoming more and more tangible and critical that we critique it I think.
MARTIN: So can we ask you what you're working on now or is it a secret?
DIAMOND: It's not a secret. I'm just finishing up a play called "Toni Stone," and it's about Toni Stone who's the first African-American woman who played baseball in the Negro Leagues. Like, she played with the grown-up men, and she was good. And so that's what's next.
MARTIN: Can't wait. Well, that's Lydia Diamond. Her play "Smart People" is playing in Washington, D.C., at the Arena Stage until May 21. And she was kind enough to join us from WBEZ in Chicago. Lydia Diamond, thanks so much for speaking with us.
DIAMOND: Oh, thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.