Second Stage Theatre's Smart People gives voice to four fictional Harvard intellectuals who find themselves in heated discussions of race, gender and sexual politics on the eve of President Barack Obama's first election. So, we asked the cast and creative team, "How has life changed since President Obama was elected?"
Playwright Lydia Diamond
Beyond [the fact] that I think he's done a great job in the White House—which [Smart People] is actually not so much about—it's the way we talk about race has had to shift, so this whole idea of [a] post-racial [America] and what that means. And then, now, very most recently…there's so much attention [to racial issues], and it's exciting and disturbing. And, I don't know that things have changed as much as we might have thought they would, not because of Obama but because of our United States.
Her inspiration for Smart People? I had decided that I wanted to very much own and write a play that was about race, very specifically, and Obama's election made me have to up my game. It's a different conversation now, and I found that intriguing and exciting.
Director Kenny Leon
I think since he's been in office, it's revealed how deep our racial scars are. He's just revealed the truth. I love the fact that the truth came out. I think we were fooling ourselves, and it's like, "Oh, that's where we are." We have to get beneath and beyond that fear of each other that intolerance of each other—and thinking that, "If we give gay rights, then that's taking something away from a person who's not gay. If you give African Americans a job, that's taking away from a job that would go to…" It's a selfish way of thinking. That's where I think most Americans live. They live in fear and hate, and they want to do the right thing, but they're afraid. Even when I think about the things that have happened, like national terrorist [attacks, with] people getting killed in churches and schools… But, we give a big focus if there's an international terrorist [attack]. It's the same. Killing is killing, but we got the thing of hating the "other."
There are a lot of pessimistic people out there. Of course, there are still a lot of things that need to change and, in a way, we have gone a little backwards, but at the same time… The whole campaign of Obama was "Hope and Change." Going back on his interviews and the inauguration—because we're looking at that; we address that here—I remember that feeling, and it's so interesting to look back on it today, knowing what I know now and to see how things have unfolded. But, I think it's just really interesting because we've come a long way, and I don't think we give ourselves enough credit. We've also not—again, by no means am I turning a blind eye to everything that's been happening: Ferguson… Of course, it's horrible… But, I want to be optimistic in the sense that I think people are waking up in a lot of ways and are tired of it.
I think life has changed immensely in subtle, yet important, ways. I think psychologically, for a whole generation of black children growing up with a black man in the White House, that's a pretty phenomenal shift to be able to see that [accomplishment] as a possibility—a real possibility—not just the dream that anyone can, but the actual reality that anybody can. I think, being Canadian, his progress in health care, the Iran deal [and] politically, we've come a long way from where we were at the end of the Bush administration. I think people forget how dire it was because it seems like a long time ago, but I feel like we've come a long, long way.
I know he's been in office for eight years, but I think me, personally, I feel a little bit too close to it to really be able to comment on the change, but I do feel that there has been… Several things have happened over the last two years with say, "Black Lives Matter" or certain police brutality issues or voting right—you can go down the line of different things that have popped up. The health care issues and the economy. There are these things that are in flux and shifting, and as that stuff begins to happen—as there are these great shifts in our culture—I think it takes time for those things to settle and be the norm. So I think we're still in that time where there's a very real shifting going on, and people are still trying to figure out how to feel about it. Even there having been a black President for seven years, I think people are still trying to figure out what that means, and is that really something different? Some people are disappointed in that; some people, like myself, are very proud of it. I think we're still in a time of very real and great shift, and it's very difficult to comment on in the moment. I think ten years from now, we'll be able to have perspective on it, just how we have perspective on the George Bush era or the Clinton era, so as we move away from it, I think it'll be easy to put into words.
I think that now we're in a space where people want to talk about being post-racial, and frankly some people feel like we're past that conversation now—that we're completely a new America. I had the opportunity over MLK Day to listen to, and to read, a speech of Angela Davis' [as well as] the speeches of other leaders, and many were written in the 60s or the 70s. The parallels between the calls to action then — some of the big, macro things that were being discussed by those leaders then—still have resonance today. And, so, I think that when we take a real honest inventory of where we're at, we have some ways to go even post-Obama.