It would appear that, given the name of one of Shakespeares most recognizable female characters, director Desdemona Chiang was predestined for a life in the theater. Chiang, who directs Lydia Diamonds play Smart People, which begins performances Wednesday at Long Wharf Theatre, doesnt refute the theory when she explains that she landed in the theater by accident.
I had no intention of going into theater, said Chiang before a recent rehearsal. Desdemona is actually my given name. But I went to Berkeley for my undergrad and was a molecular and cell biology major. I had planned to go to medical school. But during my first year of college I was told by my adviser that I would have to take an arts requirement class. I thought the easiest class to take would be an intro to acting class because it didnt have a lecture, it didnt have a paper. I would just show up and play improv games the whole semester. It was the easiest A I could take.
If fate lured Chiang into a life in the theater with the prospect of an easy A, it locked her in with the promise of endearing friendships.
The theater kids were more fun to hang with than the biology kids, she said. I found myself spending more time in the theater department for completely personal and social reasons.
It wasnt until much later when I got into graduate school, said Chiang, who earned her MFA from the University of Washington, that I realized the value of the arts and the value of theater and all the social good and the political responsibility of doing theater.
Smart People, which officially opens March 22 and runs through April 9, is the sort of play that feeds Chiangs appetite for social good and political responsibility through dyadic interaction rather than group activism.
Im really interested in unconscious bias and implicit bias, Chiang said. This show, in a nutshell, is about four smart people who think they know how they see the world and are surprised by the ways they didnt realize that they harbor certain opinions.
These four characters Valerie (Tiffany Nichole Greene), an African-American actor fresh out of Harvards ART training program; Jackson (Sullivan Jones), an African-American surgical intern at Harvard Medical School; Brian (Peter OConnor), a Caucasian neuropsychiatrist and tenured professor at Harvard; and Ginny (Ka-Ling Cheung), a Chinese-Japanese-American tenured professor of psychology at Harvard; are four smart people who are smart, but not as smart as they think they are, as Chiang described them.
They study race, or they study culture, or they are neurosurgeons and artists, said Chiang, who was born in Taiwan and identifies as Chinese-American. So they have a perceived sense of awareness around how the world works, and how social interactions work, and how human behavior works, and yet they find themselves in these encounters where their gut impulses contradict all the right things theyre supposed to do.
Diamond, whose previous credits include Broadways Stick Fly and adapting Toni Morrisons The Bluest Eye for the stage, started writing Smart People in 2007 after reading an article by a prominent neuropsychologist studying race. It debuted in 2014 at the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston and was next produced off-Broadway just over a year ago at Second Stage.
The plays resonates more today than ever, said Chiang.
Definitely, post-2008, this play has a completely different meaning to me, she said. The play ends with the four characters watching the inauguration of our first black president. That issue is paramount now, compared to when it was produced in New York.
And, of course, the play is not a downer, she added. Its a comedy. But theres something kind of longing about it now.
The challenge to this play, Chiang said, is making these four intelligent and somewhat caustic characters human while, at the same time, honoring their wit and irony.
These are all people we have met, have seen or are related to or have relationships with, she said. These are not unfamiliar characteristics, I find.
I think that part of what Lydia has done, either consciously or unconsciously, is set up four people for us to look at as potentially stereotypical so that, over the course of the play, they become more human, Chiang said. Theyre four people we know very little about and they come off as a little bombastic and a little forward. Over the course of the play, as they interact, they catch each other; theyre surprised by each other. Some fall in love with each other, some try to fall in love and fail.
Because they start opening up to each other, she said, I think by the end of the play, hopefully, if weve laid out the series of events right, we will feel pretty much attached to and moved by them.
Chiang, who works extensively in Western regional theaters such as Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Seattle Repertory Theatre and Seattle Shakespeare Company, obviously has no regret over her choice to choose a career in the arts rather than science. She believes that she can make her mark in theater, however differently than in medicine or research.
I certainly think theres value in both areas, she said. (But) thats why I think that arts funding is the first thing to go. We dont see the immediate impact.
What we see, I feel like, in the arts is long-term, hidden impact, she said. We teach things like vulnerability. We teach leadership. And we do this by playing pretend and getting on stage and expressing ourselves and being creative. For most people, it looks recreational, which I think is a struggle.
But I will say, theater completely changed my life, Chiang said. I did not know how to have fun before I did theater. I did not know how to be vulnerable with people. I was smart, certainly, and I could write a good paper, but I couldnt stand in front of a group and speak openly and candidly about how I felt about things. Theater gave me the space and training to do that.
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