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Get Smart

UPDATE: University of Richmond's production of “Smart People” has been cancelled due to a COVID outbreak among the cast.

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Editor's note: University of Richmond shared this message: "We are sorry to share that the UR Free Theatre and Dance production of Smart People, scheduled for Sept. 29 - Oct. 2, has been canceled due to confirmed cases of Covid within the production. At this time, there are no plans to reschedule the production.

Taking place on the eve of Barack Obama’s election to the White House, Lydia R. Diamond’s drama “Smart People” takes issue with the idea of a “post-racial” America.

“There’s this thinking that, ‘You’ve got Obama. You’ve got LeBron James. You’ve got Tiger Woods. Black people, what’s your problem? This is a post-racial society.’ It’s not,” says Chuck Mike, director of the University of Richmond production being staged this week at the Modlin Center for the Arts. “The play incites the type of conversation that needs to go on about this issue if we’re ever going to put it past us as a society.”

The show concerns four people from different backgrounds and occupations who work in and around Harvard University. There’s Jackson, a surgical intern who is often second-guessed at work because he’s Black. There’s Valerie, an actress who’s frustrated at the roles she’s offered or not offered because she’s Black. There’s Ginny, a Harvard psychology professor of Japanese and Chinese ancestry. And there’s Brian, a neuropsychiatrist who’s white and wants to prove that all whites are racist through his research.

Through the course of the show, these characters intersect and ricochet off each other as they touch on race, class, identity, sexuality and prejudice.

“It’s a clever, witty and thoughtful dark comedy on race,” says Mike, an associate professor of theater at UR. “It speaks to what I would call the other pandemic: racism in America.”

Nia Blondell, who plays Valerie, says the show can be discomfiting when it delves into difficult topics.

“It’s not very plot driven,” Blondell says. It’s about “race, and how we deal with race, and how race deals with us, and the idea that it’s way more complicated than any one person could debunk and try to understand.”

As a theater student at Virginia Commonwealth University, Blondell says her character is very similar to her.

“There’s been a little bit of ease in my interpretation of the character, where I feel like I don’t have to work as hard as I would in a musical or in a period piece,” says Blondell, who appeared in the period drama “Intimate Apparel” at VCU earlier this year. “There are moments where I’m like, ‘Am I playing this character, or is this character playing me?’”

Robbie Winston, who previously spent 15 years working as full-time actor in Los Angeles, plays Brian.

“It’s got some intense drama, and it also has some humor in it too,” says Winston of the show. “It’s funny. It’s sexy. It’s interesting to have these conversations about politics and race and sex among friends and love interests.”

Though the show’s conversations can be difficult, Winston says the drama is leavened by humor.

“You’re walking on eggshells and you’re seeing these different dynamics and power moves and power plays,” says Winston, who works as a substitute teacher at C.E. Curtis Elementary School in Chester. “It’s conversations that people need to have, but no one wants to have because it ends up creating conflict or ruins relationships.”

Overall, Winston says “Smart People” is the kind of show that you’ll be talking about long after the curtain comes down.

“Come with an open mind and just enjoy the ride. Even if there might be some awkward moments, you’re safe in the audience,” Winston says. “You’ll laugh, you’ll feel awkward, and you’ll probably be left thinking about things for a couple of weeks.”

University of Richmond’s “Smart People” plays Sept. 29-Oct. 1 at the Modlin Center for the Arts, 453 Westhampton Way, 23173. For more information, visit modlin.richmond.edu.

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