Nashville Rep’s current offering, playwright Lydia Diamond’s Smart People, centers around four Cambridge, Massachusetts residents; an actress, a neuropsychiatrist, a psychologist and a surgeon during the time just prior to Obama’s first election.
Aside from slightly contrived circumstances courtesy the playwright that give these four rather convenient degrees of separation, they also share common interest in the brain and how it responds/reacts to race. Currently on-stage at Andrew Johnson Theatre (inside the Tennessee Performing Arts Center/505 Deadrick Street), director Jon Royal’s interpretation of Smart People starring Tamiko Robinson Steele, David Ian Lee, Christine Lin and Shawn Whitsell continues with performances thru November 24. What follows are my conversations with all four cast members for my latest Rapid Fire Q&A.
Rapid Fire with the cast of Smart People onstage at Nashville Rep thru February 24
Rapid Fire with Tamiko Robinson Steele, Valerie Johnston in Smart People
TAMIKO ROBINSON STEELE: Valerie is a determined, clear-minded, hard working, driven, passionate, creative artist. She is also a daughter, friend, self aware individual with unlimited potential. I admire her fiery spirit, and the way she fights against the labels society would bestow on her.
JP: As Valerie, you play an actress who’s currently paying the bills working as a maid, along with another side job we’ll address next. It would seem that playwright Lydia R. Diamond purposely included the domestic worker detail. Hattie McDaniel became the first black actress to win an Oscar and she did so for playing a maid in Gone With the Wind. Before and since, African-American actresses have fought to get beyond that stereotype. What are your feelings of playing an actress working as a maid as it relates to the context of this particular piece?
TAMIKO ROBINSON STEELE: It’s important to show that people aren’t what they do. She also may have a slight ulterior motive for doing this particular line of work, as a rebellion of sorts, but she doesn’t let what others think of her path define who she is. Valerie actively fights against being put in a box which you can witness throughout the show, she works against type. Of course she realizes the stigma behind domestic work, but ultimately decides to do it anyway! This speaks to how tall she stand whether others feel like she’s “setting our people back” or not. I understand and struggle as an actress with the types of roles I play. I’ve done certain roles in the past, that if offered that same opportunity I wouldn’t accept. It’s become a personal choice, and that’s for me and only me to decide what that is.
JP: Valerie’s other side job is that of Brian’s research assistant. Other than a convenient gimmick to connect the characters, why do you think this aspect of Valerie’s life is important to note?
TAMIKO ROBINSON STEELE: This relationship shows how Valerie relates to people when there is no added pressures of romance. She’s a good and earnest friend who accepts people for who and where they are.
JP: What aspects of Valerie’s evolution within the play do you hope audiences take with them?
TAMIKO ROBINSON STEELE: Her ability (and sometimes pitfall) of being open and speaking plain. She’s transparent. There is no falseness in who she is (when she’s not performing lol).
Rapid Fire with David Ian Lee, Brian in Smart People
DAVID IAN LEE: Thrilled, thrilled, thrilled! I love this company, and I love this stage. I’m so grateful that with Rapture Blister Burn and Smart People I’ve had opportunities to collaborate in the telling of thoughtful, socially-engaged stories about the world we live in–and the world we’d like to see become a bit more just, a bit more understanding. I’ve been fortunate to play two very complicated men, full of contradictions and struggles and fun, thorny stuff. And with both projects, I’ve been fortunate to be work with great, supportive collaborators.
JP: How has it been to share the stage with your three co-stars?
DAVID IAN LEE: It’s a privilege and a pleasure to be on stage with Christine, Shawn, and Tamiko. Shawn and Tamiko are two artists whom I’ve wanted to work with for years; they are deeply respected in our theatre community, and deservedly so in no small part because they are simply tremendous performers. From backstage every night I can hear the audience falling in love with them, much to my envy, if I’m honest! And though Christine is working with us from out of town, she is such a generous, collaborative, open individual that I quickly felt as though we we’re old friends. She is brilliant and specific in her work, and I’m fairly convinced she’s incapable of a dishonest moment on stage. To be on stage with Shawn, Tamiko, and Christine you need to bring your A-Game. They set the bar high and I’m honored to work with them. I’m also glad that Jon Royal created such a warm and courageous rehearsal space. I love this team.
JP: You play Brian White. Tell me about your character?
DAVID IAN LEE: Brian White is a neuroscientist and neuropsychologist, currently on a tenure-track at Harvard, where in addition to teaching he conducts an ongoing study he believes will prove that all white people are racist. Brian has gained some notoriety at the start of play, and that notoriety does not sit well with all of Brian’s peers and superiors. He’s a man convinced he’s found a cure for an ill that has “held our country hostage since its inception.”
JP: What’s your favorite aspect of Brian?
DAVID IAN LEE: When you play a character you have to find ways of seeing through their eyes and walking in their shoes. Tell you what I love about Brian: He is brilliant, passionate, and completely unyielding in his pursuit of what he knows to be right. He’s wittier, braver, and brasher than I am, and that makes him a lot of fun to play. He’s audacious…as are his shortcomings…but what I most love about Brian is his humanity: he’s flawed and broken, messy and delicious, just like every one of us.
JP: Does Brian evolve during the play?
DAVID IAN LEE: That’s a question Jon and I wrestled with during the rehearsal process. Brian certainly makes discoveries and stares into an abyss or two, but without giving away the ending I’ll only offer this: Sometimes there’s nothing more dangerous than certitude.
Rapid Fire with Christine Lin, Ginny Yang in Smart People
JP: I understand this marks your Nashville Rep debut. Having grown up near Chicago and currently residing in Los Angeles, with theatre credits as far-reaching, how does Nashville stack up theatrically?
CHRISTINE LIN: I love Nashville’s theater community and the shows I’ve been able to see! From experimental theater (BigLoveNashville.com) to comedy (Doyle & Debbie) to children’s theater (Nashville Children’s Theatre and Theater Bug) and of course, Smart People at Nashville Rep, the work and talent has been top notch. I’ve been able to enjoy the quality and variety of theater available in the Music City and hope that Nashvillians and visitors alike take advantage of all the theater scene has to offer!
Nashville theater-makers are beautifully supportive of one another but still relatively small in size and in its audience base. It takes the community engaging as audience members for arts and culture to make an impact on a city, and Nashville definitely has room to grow. As an Asian American actress, I don’t know when a Nashville show will again need someone like me, but I’m very proud to help tell this story that has left audiences thinking and talking about how we can better empathize and interact with one another. I love talking with audience members about their impressions – during a talkback or in the lobby – and they’ve thankfully had a lot to say!
JP: Who is Ginny Yang?
CHRISTINE LIN: Leading Harvard research psychologist, third generation Asian American woman studying and treating other third generation Asian American women. Sharp, funny, and forgiving. Good at compartmentalizing.
JP: Some critics have described the multicultural four-person cast as a bit contrived. Why would you say it is not?
CHRISTINE LIN: The racial makeup of the cast makes perfect sense once you see the show, as with the movie Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. The relationships – platonic, romantic, or work – are what drive this show, the oldest being the friendship between Jackson, a black medical resident, and Brian, a white neuroscientist, and the others develop organically. While race and culture are most directly discussed, there are also gender and sexual politics at play. I’m particularly fascinated by the power dynamics in these relationships.
JP: How has it been working with the show’s director, Jon Royal?
CHRISTINE LIN: I’ve loved working with Jon. His passion and knowledge of today’s societal issues brought great depth to our discussions during rehearsal, and his curiosity and desire to connect our own experiences and identities to our characters have made Ginny a very personal and fulfilling life for me to inhabit. And Jon’s also a lovely human being and pretty funny and fun to be around – but don’t tell him I said that!
JP: What aspect of Ginny’s character have you found most challenging to play?
CHRISTINE LIN: The loneliness of being a very high-achieving, single woman. The saying “it’s lonely at the top” is especially true for Ginny whose success can be a source of insecurity to people close to her. Her desire to do her best work often gets in the way of her being loved and accepted, and the lonely result can be difficult to play. Either that or her high heels at the very top of the show!
Rapid Fire with Shawn Whitsell, Jackson Moore in Smart People
SHAWN WHITSELL: Like all the characters in the play, Jackson is pretty complicated. He cares deeply for the community he serves. It’s really what drives him. Ultimately, he’s a good guy but he comes with some baggage so he can be a jerk sometimes too.
JP: While this is your first time to be part of a full production at Nashville Rep, you have quite an interesting history with the company. Tell me a little about that?
SHAWN WHITSELL: The Rep launched its professional internship program during its 2008-09 season and I was the company’s first Audience Development Professional Intern. I was also a part of the very first round of the Ingram New Works Lab, though I had to drop out after only a couple of sessions due to travel and scheduling conflicts. I later developed my play En-Contracted in the Writing Room, which was hosted by the Rep. I also acted in a staged reading of A Raisin In The Sun when the Rep did it as a part of the REPaloud series. So, though this is my first full production, I have quite a varied 10-year history with the company.
JP: As Jackson, you share some scenes with Tamiko Robinson Steele’s Valerie. How is she as a scene partner?
SHAWN WHITSELL: Tamiko is a beast of an actor. I’m a huge fan of hers. I’ve had the pleasure of both directing and acting alongside her many times over the course of 12 years. We’ve played lovers, siblings and anything else you can think of. We’re like brother and sister so intimate love scenes between us are always weird but I love sharing the stage with her.
JP: What’s the dumbest thing about the average smart person?
SHAWN WHITSELL: Hmmmm, well, I don’t know about the average smart person but I think the dumbest thing is thinking you can’t learn from someone who may not be as “smart” as you. Real smart people know you have to be teachable.
JP: The action of this play centers around the time just before Barack Obama is first elected President and deals with a myriad of hot topics. How important is this piece, considering the world we are living in today?
SHAWN WHITSELL: We are living in a crazy time and I think the current climate is a direct response to Obama’s presidency. I think this play is important because the characters are honest and unapologetic while grappling with the issue of race and that’s what we need. Not only do I hope the play gives people something to think and talk about but I hope it propels them into action.
Nashville Rep’s Smart People continues with performances Thursday, February 22 at 6:30p.m., Friday, February 23 at 7:30 p.m., a Saturday matinee at 2:30 p.m. and a final performance Saturday evening at 7:30 p.m. on February 24. In their on-going effort to bring quality theatre to everyone, Thursday night, February 22 will be another of The Rep’s popular Pay What You Can nights. To take advantage of this ticketing special that is exactly what it sounds like…you literally pay what you can…simply show up at the box office between 5:15 p.m.-6:25 p.m. Thursday evening and give promo code “RELATIONSHIPS”. Of course once the show is sold out, that’s it, as this in-person ticketing special is first come, first served. Can’t make it Thursday night? No worries, Nashville Rep is also offering a 25% discount for their social media an online fanbase for the remaining Friday and Saturday performances. Simply give the promo code “SMARTSOCIAL” when purchasing the tickets online, by phone at 615.782.4040 or at the box office. For more information about Smart People, CLICK HERE.
Up next for Nashville Rep is a joint venture with Lipscomb University as they present Inherit The Wind with performances at TPAC’s Andrew Johnson Theatre March 24-April 21. CLICK HERE for tickets or more information. To keep up with the latest from Nashville Rep, follow them on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. While you’re at it, if you’ve enjoyed this latest installment of my recurring celebrity interview feature, Rapid Fire, CLICK HERE to check out previous conversations. Also, be sure and subscribe to Nashville Arts Critic by entering your email address in the “Newsletter” tab at the top of this article. You can also follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Tumbler. Interested in coverage? Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.