From top left, Donavan Harris ’19G, Dominique Ocampo ’22, Megan Carroll ’20, Shaun McNulty ’22, star in “Smart People” on Friday, Sept. 27, 2019 . The Department of Theatre begins their fall productions with a play that entwines notions about race, identity and sexuality. (Courtesy of Chris Herrera)

‘Smart People’ fall production explores identity on stage

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The Department of Theatre will begin the fall production lineup on Sept. 27 with “Smart People”—a play that entwines notions about race, identity and sexuality. 

Written by Lydia R. Diamond, the play centers around four Harvard intellectuals on the eve of Barack Obama’s 2008 election. As their relationships evolve, they find themselves embroiled with conflicts of racial and sexual politics in the search for success and love.

“It dovetails into our theme of the season—an Act of Creation,” said  Kashi Johnson, director and chairperson of the department of theatre. “The play is about these four creating their identities in the face of their work, which keeps on informing their identities. So the question is: How smart are they?”

With the influence of cross-racial interactions come diverse characters. Donavon Harris, ‘19, plays Jackson, an African American surgical intern. Megan Carroll, ‘20, plays Valerie, an African American actress doing drudgery until her MFA in acting pays off. Shaun McNulty, ‘22, plays a white neuroscience professor researching how the brain can be hardwired to racial perceptions. Dominique Ocampo, ‘22, plays Ginny, an Asian American psychology professor studying mental health issues among Asian American women.

“I keep on saying it, but I cast smart actors for ‘Smart People,’” Johnson said. “They’ve really helped me see this play beyond my vision with their interpretations, which has made me a better director.”

Ocampo said the nature of a four-person play puts a lot of pressure on actors to emote and fill the stage.

She found her relationship with the audience to be even more intimate, but the support behind the scenes overrides that fear. 

“It’s a very small but mighty cast,” Ocampo said. “We’ve learned to trust each other and really welcome each other with open arms. We’re in it together.”

The more Ocampo gets to know her character, the more she learns about the world around her. Through the eyes of Ginny, Ocampo has come to see how nuances in racial bias also affect her own identities. The journey has been both enlightening and educational, she said. 

Carroll said the play does not take a direct confrontational approach to talking about race and sexuality. Instead, ‘Smart People’ pivots on “insidious racial interactions” that one might brush off in day-to-day conversations, she said. Carroll believes the diverse cast will bring that subtlety to light. 

“It’s diversity-in-action on stage at Lehigh University,” Johnson said. “And if for no other reason, that should be enough.”

Johnson said the play holds up a mirror for the audience to see themselves and people who they can relate to, as well as fresh perspectives and questions on race and identity.

It might not answer all questions, she said, but it helps raise them and gives the audience permission to not only talk, but also laugh at them. 

“And the play is really funny,” Johnson said. “Sometimes you have to laugh to keep you from crying, and (Diamond) makes us laugh a lot.”

As they meet and their lives collide, these four characters ask questions and talk openly about topics Johnson thinks society doesn’t normally discuss, especially in today’s world.

Johnson said there needs to be more discussion and hopes this play contributes to continuing the conversation. 

Carroll said many of the conflicts discussed in the play translate well to Lehigh. 

“It hits close to home for everyone,” she said. “I really want the audience to know that this play is not meant to be seen and forgotten. It’s meant to be talked about.”

“Smart People” will run from Sept. 27-29 and Oct. 2-5 at 7:30 p.m. the Diamond Theater in Zoellner Arts Center.

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