Lorene Chesley and Sue Jin Song Are Smart People at Arena Stage
Lydia Diamond’s Smart People deals with all the “isms” – racism, careerism, chauvinism, conformism, conservatism, elitism, materialism, multiculturalism, etc. All those “isms” affect our attitudes and beliefs. The play, needless to say, is thought-provoking, causing the actors and, of course, audience members to think, react, and, yes, squirm a little as what unfolds on stage provokes self-examination. “There is a lot of anxiety in the country and the city right now,” says Sue Jin Song, who plays a psychologist, Ginny Yang. “I think this play is topical and can inspire great debate and, hopefully, introspection. We need to find a way to dialogue about these issues to move forward as a country.”
While the “smart” in the title refers to the intellect of the four main characters – besides a psychologist, they include an actress, a doctor, and a neurobiologist – these professionals at times come across as pretentious. “They are smart, as in bright, but definitely have shades of arrogance,” says Lorene Chesley, who plays the actress, Valerie. Sue Jin observes that each person is accustomed to being the smartest person in the room. “So what happens when you are met with another person who is just as smart and opinionated?” she asks.
Sue Jin Song
Spirited conversations happen, even fireworks, between the four who are friends, even lovers. “I love that this play is funny, smart, and brave,” says Sue Jin. “I love that theater gives us a safe place to allow for difficult conversations.” Diamond set the play during the 2008 presidential election, but it will be presented at Arena Stage in the aftermath of the 2016 election. “People wanted to believe that with Barack Obama’s election we were now a post-racial country,” says Sue Jin. “Well, not so fast.”
Each actress connects with her character. “Valerie believes in her craft one thousand percent and she believes in herself, that she can do anything you throw her way,” says Lorene. The downside is that “she says reckless things and takes things way too personally at times.” Valerie believes her MFA from Harvard will jump start her career. “She gets pigeonholed in the roles she goes out for, and is not respected for her MFA training,” says Lorene. “I have experienced the same thing. When I first got out of grad school I just knew I could do anything, but I immediately got sent out for roles that are my `type.’ It’s like I have done all this training to widen and expand my horizons and then Bam! Back to playing whatever I classically look like. I know how to navigate and play the game now that I’ve been in the business for years.”
Like Valerie, Ginny has worked hard to succeed in her profession. “Even her weaknesses or faults just make her more human and interesting to me,” Sue Jin says. “She is facing her life choices and the impact that those choices have on her clients and on her work. But the higher you climb, the further you have to fall.” Ginny is aware of being an Asian-American woman in an institution and country that is still dominated by white men. “She navigates that system, but at what cost?” asks Sue Jin. Like Lorene, Sue Jin says she has often found herself typecast. “As an Asian actress, I have turned down work and auditions for certain roles and projects,” she says.
Both women are fans of Lydia Diamond and also wanted to work with Seema Sueko, who directs. The production, they say, will not disappoint, involving the audience immediately in the action. “[It opens] with a bang!” says Sue Jin. “Hold on and grab your seatbelts.”
Adds Lorene: “With the political climate we’re in, race, love, all of these topics that are unveiled throughout this play, it’s imperative to open the line of communication so then we can move forward with real change.“ She hopes that Smart People will encourage people “to discuss these important topics… and to LISTEN to one another.”
Top photo by Tony Powell
Left to right: Lorene Chesley as Valerie Johnston, Gregory Perri as Brian White, Jaysen Wright as Jackson Moore and Sue Jin Song as Ginny Yang
Written by Lydia Diamond
Directed by Seema Sueko
1101 Sixth Street SW
April 14 through May 21, 2017