Creatively speaking truth to power: The Intersection of Art, Politics and Race

04/11/2017 04:44 pm ET Updated May 26, 2017

“At the end of the day, I would like people to say I bravely contributed quality, meaningful work, to the world.” -- Lydia R. Diamond

Race: It’s been the ubiquitous four-letter word at the core of some of the most bitter, inhumane and deadly human encounters for centuries. It’s also a concept whose legitimacy -- or lack thereof, has lain at the center of social, political and intellectual debate since its formulation. In many circles, conversations about Race – along with its socio-political cognates Racist and Racism, are typically avoided to keep conflict at bay. After all, the emotionally-charged nature of these topics is well known for producing anxiety, disagreement, and quarrels, at the least. So, what would compel a Playwright to create a body of work concentrated on such highly-charged and controversial socio-political concepts? The answer, according to award-winning Playwright Lydia R. Diamond is simple: “It is precisely because we are so ill-equipped to talk about these topics that I find it a political imperative to do so in my work.” So it follows, that this week Capital City drama-lovers will be introduced to Diamond’s latest production: Smart People, a Play which creatively uses the lens of science to explore motivations for racist behaviors.

Ms. Diamond is a gifted actor and playwright whose brave and honest productions about the complexities of race and power have toured throughout the U.S., and deservedly made their way to Broadway. In Smart People, she introduces audiences to a Neuroscientist whose studies produce controversial findings involving intrinsic human motivations to act with race-based prejudice and bias. Diamond, a black female artist whose protagonist is a white male scientist told me she thought it an “interesting experiment” to write such a piece in light of false notions about a post-racial America following the election of President Barack Obama. She remarked, “I was very interested to see what would happen if I wrote a white male protagonist who had a radical theory, and what that would do to him. It’s interesting that people don’t know what to do with a black woman writing a white male protagonist. I found that I had to be more nuanced in my writing, and I needed to use a different set of tools.”

Each of Diamond’s smart, sensitive and witty productions demonstrates her deep regard for the human condition and profound passion to confront the multi-faceted socio-political intersection of race, identity, class and power. She notes, “My work has always been compelled by a very real sense of injustice in a system dedicated to being racist.” In fact, it’s her concern about the insidious nature of race-based oppression that drives her to boldly tackle such weighty topics through characters and performances that heighten her creative productivity and simultaneously, challenge the sentiments and perceptions of theatregoers. This latter, I believe, is a fundamental appeal for audiences who emerge from each Diamond production with fascinating musings on the implications of her work, and its associations with the conflicted politics of race. Not surprisingly, she has observed first-hand such intriguing deliberations among theatregoers following performances of Smart People.

As an example, Diamond noted that one topic seeming to captivate audiences emerging from Smart People involves perceptions of her protagonist Neuroscientist, whom she considers a tragic hero. “Some people who aren’t thrilled with my protagonist have thought his journey was at the expense of people of color,” she said. But she noted that’s not her intention, adding: “We’ve seen that Play where the white person goes ‘now I understand race, and I’m cleansed.’ But that’s not what I am trying to do. My sense of this Protagonist’s journey is that by virtue of being white and brilliant, he sets out to prove a premise that no one wants to hear. He’s screaming his truth to the wind and no one can hear it,” she added.

Intelligently written with levity and grace, Diamond’s deeply-inspired performances -- including Voyeurs et Venus, Harriet Jacobs, and Stick Fly, have won cherished acclaim. Not surprisingly, she has worked with some of the most creative and talented artists in Theatre. Yet, she told me that her most-cherished accomplishment is being “Mom” to her 13-year old son, Baylor. And something tells me it’s largely because of Baylor that she continues to be driven to, in her words, “be a part of the resistance by speaking truth to power.” Lydia R. Diamond wants to make our world a better place, and Smart People is one of her contributions to achieve just that.

Smart People debuts in the Kreeger Theatre on the Arena Stage on April 14 and runs through May 21, 2017. For more information, visit: www.arenastage.org

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