Conversations overheard during the intermission of a show often provide fascinating insights into an audience’s immediate reaction to what they’re experiencing. Topics can range from the temperature in the theater (“too cold”) to the running time of the first act (“too long”) to the volume level of the actors when delivering dialogue (“too low”).
All of the aforementioned comments were overheard during intermission at a recent performance of Smart People at Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse, plus one more. An audience member, in a discussion with their seat mate about why they wanted to leave at intermission, gave the following as one of their reasons—the show was “too woke.”
Now “woke” is a term I’ve grown accustomed to dripping off the lips of conservative TV pundits and politicians. But when asked to define what they mean by it, they’re often at a rare loss for words. They might be surprised that the term actually originated in the Black community as an expression of encouragement to stay alert to racial and social injustice. Not a bad thing, right?
Unless one is a member of the community with an overwhelming history of inflicting those injustices.
Which brings us back to the show itself. Lydia Diamond’s script adds prejudice to the old “nature vs. nurture” debate via the interactions of four “smart people.” Brian White (Marcus Peterson-Spain) is a neuropsychologist whose research aims to prove that “all whites are racist.” His best friend, Jackson Moore (Keene Hudson), is an intern who thinks his skills are being questioned because of his skin color.
Both of their paths are crossed by Ginny Yang (Jenni Kim-Etimos) and Valerie Johnston (Bethiah Benson). Ginny is seeking assistance for some research she is doing on Asian-American women, while Valerie, a recent MFA in acting graduate, is struggling to get cast in anything other than the stereotypical roles usually offered to young Black women. How these four come together is a bit of a stretch, but what is said when they do is often smart, provocative, unsettling and funny.
Director David L. Yen has four strong performers in the leads, but blocking choices left a good deal of their performances unheard or unwitnessed at times by portions of the audience. Vocal amplification would have helped.
Diamond’s overstuffed script may be a bit too brainy for its own good, as she adds sexism, classism and a whole lot of smart jargon to the mix. But too woke?
Here’s to more “woke theater” in our community.
‘Smart People’ runs through May 28 on the Monroe Stage at 6th Street Playhouse, 52 W. 6th Street, Santa Rosa. Thurs-Sat., 7:30pm; Sat-Sun, 2pm. $22–$44. 707.523.4185. 6thstreeetplayhouse.com.