Q&A: American Players Theatre’s Melisa Pereyra on ‘Smart People’
December 21, 2020 Leave a Comment
In November, PBS Wisconsin and American Players Theatre (APT) continued its live play reading series “Out of the Woods” with three new plays.
These three plays – The Sins of Sor Juana, Nat Turner in Jerusalem and Smart People – were written by playwrights of color, and the readings included collaborations with artists and directors of color. They were livestreamed by APT and recorded by PBS Wisconsin on three Friday nights in November and are free to view online and on the free PBS App on your phone, tablet, other digital TV devices and smart TVs through Dec. 31.
APT interviewed those linked to the plays to take a deeper dive into each story. Smart People director and core company actor Melisa Pereyra discussed what it was like to work on this complex and timely play.
Lydia R. Diamond’s 2014 play Smart People draws us into a series of conversations among four Harvard-educated up-and-comers: surgeon Jackson Moore, actor Valerie Johnston, psychologist Ginny Yang and neuropsychologist Brian White. As their paths cross, they discuss issues of race, sex and politics in the days just before Barack Obama’s 2008 election.
APT: How did you approach this play as a director?
Melisa Pereyra: This was my first time working on a Lydia Diamond play. It was important to me to educate myself as much as possible; knowing that I would not be able to bridge my knowledge gap or erase my blind spots by myself. Besides working with this team of actors, what I loved most about preparing for this play was that in contrast to all the classics, there is so much data available to help us make sense of story. All we have to do is look. Once we have knowledge and context, we can make plans for action. I hope the content of this play helped audiences contextualize whiteness and how it functions in the world.
APT: Can you talk a bit about the cast, and how you all approached the incredibly complex conversations that take place in this play?
Pereyra: It was so important to work in a room with actors who trusted me with their hearts and vulnerability. Because Smart People dealt with conversations about white privilege and white supremacist ideologies, we had to start the conversation there. All the people in the room had to be comfortable with this and there had to be consent on their part.
Lydia Diamond shows us how these characters survived from day to day in a racialized society; sometimes they stood up for themselves and suffered the consequences, and sometimes they internalized those experiences enlarging their blind spots. Brian (Jeb Burris), on the other hand, used his data on racism to the point where he stopped listening to the people of color surrounding him. I did not have to explain this to the actors because Lydia Diamond is not talking about a foreign land long, long ago. She’s talking about this racialized country both a few elections ago and today.
APT: What was your favorite thing about working on Smart People?
Pereyra: It was wonderful to be making art with people I love and admire. Aside from that, it was amazing to work on a play that directly addresses white privilege. It is not something that actors have to tip toe around in the rehearsal room, but rather something that lies at the heart of the play. As a white Latinx who does not have a skin color experience, I am excited to see how plays will continue to expand the conversation on race by de-centering whiteness.