Intro Sound: Bob Dylan’s “The Eve of Destruction” March 2016.
Zoe (Jordan Boatman), a Poly/Sci major at a prestigious university, is consulting with her thesis advisor, highly lauded history teacher, Janine Bosco (Lisa Banes). Zoe is black, Janine white. Both women are extraordinarily bright and articulate. Janine begins with minor corrections, but is clearly concerned Zoe’s written the whole piece without previously asking for guidance. She finds the student’s references to be weak, reflecting ease with Internet navigation rather than primary sources. The girl bristles and offers only to fix format. “There are deeper weaknesses to your overall argument,” her advisor answers.
The paper is quoted: “A successful American Revolution was only possible because of the existence of slavery.” Its author makes an impassioned argument. “More radical change wasn’t on the table in 1776 with or without slavery,” Janine states. “They didn’t care enough,” Zoe counters. “It’s easier to be pro-equality when there’s a subjugated minority in your midst…I know because I know how race affects people…” Zoe gets defensive. Janine commends her creativity and potential. It does nothing to tamp down the writer’s increasing anger.
Zoe asks about her grade. She needs a B+ for future plans. Janine volunteers to help rewrite, but the girl has what she feels are more important commitments: Sandra Day O’Connor is speaking on campus – Zoe will be among demonstrators. A rally concerning police brutality is coming up. Janine calls these “curriculars.” “It’s not like band practice!” Zoe snaps. To her, the educator represents perpetuation of an untenable situation. Janine is no more an individual than those the student accuses her of lumping together.
What begins benign becomes adversarial, then personal. Zoe accuses Janine of white elitism, of insensitivity to underrepresented minorities; of unwillingness to hear ideas about experience with which she can’t possibly be familiar. “America is an engine of racial oppression…you have a picture of a racist criminal on your walls (George Washington) …slavery, segregation, systematic exclusion…!” Imagine Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in high dudgeon.
Janine brings up her reputation, experience and Polish background to no avail. She points out the advantaged position Zoe herself is in. All of a sudden, the girl plays back their conversation. She’s secretly (illegally) been recording it. “I didn’t say anything wrong,” Janine protests clearly alarmed. “Then you won’t mind if I share it,” Zoe responds. AND SHE DOES.
Act II takes place three weeks later. Both their lives have been seriously, perhaps irreparably upended. Description of the sequence of events during the interim is incisive. The professor calls Zoe and apologizes, acknowledging some of what she said was innately wrong, promising to revise her personal and academic approach. She sees things as changing, if slowly, citing our first Black president and a woman to follow (assuming Hillary Clinton will win). Zoe retorts with 400 years of repression and bigotry.
We discover some things about Janine that create implicit understanding. Zoe is struck by these but ignores them. The beleaguered professor then suggests they release a joint statement – for both their sakes. They get as far as discussing content, but the girl’s need for “radical revolution” disallows anything that wouldn’t be more damaging. Janine’s perspective on radical revolution is timely. Finally driven to unprofessional fury, she struggles for leverage. The play’s ending is abrupt and telling.
Playwright Eleanor Burgess deep dives into both characters/points of view with specificity and energy. Historical examples are perceptive. The piece is dense and dramatically tense. By intermission, one is thoroughly wound up. Have a drink. Niceties (civilized pretense? rationalization? ) is a bullseye of racism, both historically and in light of its current overwhelming rise. Discussion is provoked.
“It’s important for us to also understand that the phrase ‘Black Lives Matter’ simply refers to the notion that there’s a specific vulnerability for African Americans that needs to be addressed. It’s not meant to suggest that other lives don’t matter. It’s to suggest that other folks aren’t experiencing this particular vulnerability.” President Barak Obama
Both actresses are wonderful. Listening is paramount; absorption, thought, and reaction visible. Equally paired, they embody the unwinnable battle with which we’ve become so familiar, yet maintain their distinctive characteristics.
Director Kimberly Senior has done a terrific job of bringing the women to vibrant life in confined space. Credibility is unquestioned. Emotional arcs are well regulated. Pacing is marvelous.
Janine holds a Hillary Clinton coffee mug. Zoe has a Color Purple poster behind her. Janine’s back requires her to get up and stretch on the chair every now and then. At one point, Zoe leaves to fetch water. Excellent details.
Opening Photos Courtesy of the production. Left: Lisa Banes; Right: Jordan Boatman
The Niceties by Eleanor Burgess
Directed by Kimberly Senior
The Niceties is presented by arrangement with Concord Theatricals on behalf of Samuel French, Inc. Cameron Anderson (Production Design Consultant), Emily Auciello (Sound Design) Rocco DeSanti (Editor)
Streaming May 27 through June 13.
FREE. RSVP required