How did you respond during your formative years when asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Answering that question comes effortlessly for two determined, well-trained Black actors, both cast members in Lydia Diamond’s “Smart People,” a play described as a “dramedy,” or comedy-drama, that recently opened at the Arena Stage in Southwest in its D.C. debut and continues through May 21.
The actors, D.C. native Lorene Chesley (Valerie Johnston) and District-transplant Jaysen Wright (Jackson Moore) are part of a four-member cast in a play that explores the unavoidable nature of cultural bias.
The backdrop: four intellectuals — a doctor, an actress, a psychologist and a neurologist studying the human response to race, all seek love, acceptance and identify with the 2008 presidential election, which would result in America’s first Black president, continuing to unfold. It’s a fascinating drama and a hilarious comedy that explores the science and psychology of racism as seen through the eyes of four smart people determined to be both seen.
Chesley says she’s excited about her homecoming and working with Diamond.
“I always wanted to be a performer but when I was young it was dance. Then one day the 12 hours in the dance studio no longer interested me even though I still wanted to entertain and tell stories. Acting? There’s nothing else I would do want to do,” she said.
“I tell youth interested in acting to take their craft seriously, get their education and then be prepared to learn the business side. I also emphasize that this is not easy — sometimes it’s a real grind and a lot of times it’s lonely. Actors are like nomads and with social media, the industry has really changed. Luckily, my family always supported me. It’s funny — in many ways the character I portray and I are quite similar. Still, as a Black woman and actor, I learned early on that there’s power in saying ‘no.’ Some characters are not the kind that I want to portray — but I like Valerie. And [playwright] Lydia Diamond is phenomenal.
“It’s not often, but in this production, we [the cast] just have a natural rapport — a team with a balance that really works,” she said.
Wright, who portrays a Black surgeon, agrees.
“We really trust and respect each other, we hang out, we click — that’s not typical,” said Wright who says he first caught the acting bug around 10 or 11.
“I want to act for as long as I can — is forever too long. But it’s funny — I was a theater major in college and then went on to graduate school for acting. However, even if you’re talented and thoroughly prepared, it’s not easy. Sometimes I wondered if I’d have to give up and work a 9-to-5. But because acting gives me my greatest joy I pressed on, I hustled. I got as much training as I could.”
“And like the character I portray, I learned early on that I had to not only be good but great,” said Wright, a graduate of Annapolis High School who says returning to the Arena Stage where he once worked as an intern seems like a “dream come true.”