Playwright Lydia Diamond’s work was last on the Huntington stage in 2010 with her hit play Stick Fly. In this interview, she takes us into the world of Smart People, her newest play.
Charles Haugland (Artistic Programs and Dramaturgy): For our audience, catch us up on what’s been happening since Stick Fly?
Lydia Diamond (Playwright): I feel as though the whole Huntington community helped make Stick Fly happen in New York. For that I am so grateful. Since that time, and bolstered by that career advancement, I am developing a series for HBO based on the characters of Stick Fly. I have a project in process about Toni Stone, the first black woman to play baseball for the Negro League, commissioned in part by Arena Stage and Roundabout Theatre Company.
I’m just beginning work on a musical for Steppenwolf with Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Finally, I received a Radcliffe Institute Fellowship which helped me to finish Smart People and begin Toni Stone.
CH: Can you talk about the spark of this play?
Rosie Benton & Billy Eugene Jones in Stick Fly. Photo: Scott Suchman
LD: My husband was reading an article by Susan T. Fiske, a neuropsychologist at the forefront of the science around brain imaging and race. My husband said, “I think this is going to blow your mind,” and indeed it became the inspiration for the play. Cambridge (and to some degree, Harvard) was where I lived, and so where the play ended up living.
It’s been a long process. I was trying to write a play about race, in real time — at a time when that topic was shifting more than I’d witnessed in my lifetime. Seismic shifts. I began writing the play in 2007, and then the presidential election happened. Watching Obama run and watching the way the climate shifted around him changed the play. I am a person who spent much of her artistic career exploring the social nuances of race. In interviews, people started asking, “What do you believe now that we are post-racial?” So . . . the national landscape around race shifted every five minutes, making the writing of the play a delicious challenge.
CH: What is (or was) your reaction to ‘post-racial,’ the buzzword of 2008?
LD: At best it’s a fallacy. The conversation makes me crazy, and I haven’t been in very many places where I have had conversations with people of color who don’t agree with me. It feels like the most dismissive and dangerous shrug-off of a phenomenon that has not gone away; how can you be post-racial in a society proven to have huge economic disparity between races? And attitudinally? (A crude example: Fox vs. MSNBC.) I’m not a political scientist. I am sure those more studied than I could make dramatically compelling arguments to the contrary. Fine. But in the psyche
of people of color, we run into prejudice and feel like, “Look, here it is. There it is again. It’s right here. It just hit me in the face,” and in my experience, some white people respond with, “I really think you are exaggerating and seeing it through a lens that is perhaps skewed.” In this play, I was interested in exploring a character compelled to say, “It’s real, let’s move on.”
The cast of Smart People: Roderick Hill, Eunice Wong, Miranda Craigwell, and McKinley Belcher III
CH: What else attracted you to creating the character of Brian, the researcher in Smart People?
LD: I wanted to write a play about a white man who passionately felt that he had discovered a key to the phenomenon of racism in America, a conversation that overshadows all of us, that we’ve inherited and can’t figure out how to fix. Whether people are on the side of “Everybody, get over this. It’s done. Stop talking about it” or on the side of “There is still so much inequality,” the conversation is part of the fabric of our society. So when I started, what interested me was exploring the reverberations of this character speaking the unspeakable in his professional and personal lives.
CH: The play is a “what if” scenario — what if someone like Brian could prove this, what would happen. While it’s heavily based on real neuroscience and research, it goes further than the real scientists have in projecting a conclusion onto the data. How did you build the science side of the play?
LD: When I started, I didn’t even know neuroscientists were looking at how different places in the brain respond to race. I was familiar with sociologists and psychologists and their studies around race, but I was frightened and inspired by those in the hard sciences taking on this work. Yet I was also encouraged that there were a lot of people across the sciences who were, in earnest, trying to work it out, and I could see very clearly — especially because I was looking at as a layperson — the places where it was exciting, because the work was being done, and frightening, because of the ramifications of the work. And I saw the gaps which no scientist or academic would dare venture into.
CH: What conversations do you hope your play will spark?
LD: I’d like to think that everybody in this play has as much to lose as everybody else, and everybody is equally welcome in the conversation. I wanted the play to premiere here in Boston in order to share it with an audience of people that are gunning for this play to be good and have done nothing but support me. But it is important that the play feel like an invitation to all of us to own the conversation. We can laugh and not feel uncomfortable because we know that we are all equally uncomfortable (and because it is funny, I can’t help it); it is why we go to the theatre — to laugh, and squirm, and be challenged and affirmed.
Nikkole Salter, Jason Dirden, Billy Eugene Jones, and Rosie Benton in Stick Fly. Photo: Scott Suchman