ESU Theatre Department to Present Smart People

Posted by: Elizabeth Richardson on February 19, 2020, No Comments

Photo: Daniel White and Deijah Faulkner rehearse a scene from the play Smart People. The play will be presented at ESU February 26 – March 1.

With the political rise of Barack Obama in 2007, playwright Lydia Diamond, whose works focus on the social nuances of race, found herself trying to write a play about race, in real time, when that topic was shifting more than she had witnessed in her lifetime. The resulting drama, Smart People, will be presented by East Stroudsburg University’s Department of Theatre February 26-29 and March 1.

Set before Obama’s first election in 2008, the play centers around the relationship of four of Harvard University’s brightest: a surgeon, an actress, a psychologist, and a neuroscientist. The characters invite each other (and thereby the audience) to consider different aspects of the brain, particularly how it responds to race and gender. Like all smart people, they are also searching for love, success, and identity in their own lives.

“The play examines the challenges that intelligent people of color face to be successful in the face of systemic privilege and prejudice,” said Stephanie Daventry French, professor of theatre and director of the production.

French added that the “drama invites us into the topic of race—sometimes challenging in mixed company—with a lot of humor and a clear view of the human strengths and fallibilities of all involved.  It also prompts discussion of these critical issues without being judgmental.”

Noting that opportunities for actors of color to play intelligent, creative complex characters in theatre and film are sometimes limited, French chose to double cast three of the four characters in the play.

“In this drama I’m playing a contemporary African-American character with whom I can closely identify,” said Tamir Cousins-Ali, a senior from East Stroudsburg majoring in theatre, who is one of two actors playing Jackson Moore, a surgeon. “This brings an immediacy to this part that I haven’t found with other roles.”

“Seeing how another actor tackles the role inspires a lot of creativity in each of us because there are more ideas out there to consider,” Cousins-Ali said.

Deijah Faulkner, a senior majoring in theatre from Bay Shore, N.Y., is one of the performers playing actress Valerie Johnston, a recent Harvard M.F.A graduate. She agreed that sharing a role is “amazing because we can learn so much from each other.”

“My character is struggling with her identity as a black woman,” Faulkner explained. “Her acting strengths are Shakespeare and other classical works, but these are not ‘black’ roles so she cleans houses and does office work while trying to overcome society’s stereotypes.”

Ginny Yang, another character in the drama, is a psychologist who studies race and identity among Asian women. One actress playing this role, Maggie Jackson, a senior majoring in theatre from Carlisle, Pa., said that her character represents the outsiders who are not black or white, but the ‘others’ who struggle to be heard in the debate on race.

The fourth character in the play, Brian White, is a neuroscientist whose studies on racial identity and perception spark controversy in the drama. “Though my character is white, he has his own struggle with the two sides of his character, the public, non-emotional side, and the private, sensitive side,” explained Daniel Michel, a freshman theatre major from West Grove, Pa.

As the only actor playing one character, Michel found it easy to play off the dual cast characters. “With each actor, you develop a certain dynamic which you pick up easily when you work together. This has been a good experience for me because it helped develop my performing skills,” Michel said.

Working together, the actors decided what ideas they wanted to convey in the production.  “We want the audience to be able look at themselves and see where they are in terms of racism and oppression,” Jackson said.  “We want to help start the conversation because the ideas in Smart People are just the tip of the iceberg.”

Other actors in the play include: Marcell McKenzie, a senior majoring in theatre from Kunkletown, Pa., who plays Jackson; Shalaine Thomas, a senior majoring in theatre from from Silver Spring Md., who plays Valerie; and Aja Padovan, a junior majoring in environmental science from Stroudsburg, Pa., who plays Ginny.

The production team includes: Christopher Domanski, associate professor of theatre as scenic and lighting designer; Andre Austin, a senior majoring in art+design from Philadelphia, Pa. as costume designer; Kevin Hsiao, a sophomore majoring in theatre from Montrose, Pa. as projections designer; and Cousins-Ali as sound designer.

Curtain times for the production are 7:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday (February 26-29) and 2 p.m. Sunday (March 1.) All performances are in the Dale Snow Theatre of the university’s Fine and Performing Arts Center, Normal and Marguerite streets, East Stroudsburg.  This play is recommended for mature high school students and adults. There is some suggested sexual content though it is only heard and not witnessed.

After each performance there will be an optional, short, facilitated discussion lead by members of ESU’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee which includes staff, students and faculty.

Because of the intimate nature of the Dale Snow Theatre, advanced reservations are strongly suggested. To make a reservation, or for more information, please email esuarts@esu.edu.