The Niceties

(From the Live 2018 Production)

By Carol Rocamora

So what have we learned?

That’s the question I ask myself, after watching The Niceties, Eleanor Burgess’s riveting, lacerating 2016 drama about racism and elitism in America. Set in the spring of 2016, the play opens deep wounds between races and generations – ones so deep that they are still gaping and bleeding today. That’s why its timely revival – directed by Kimberly Senior on the Manhattan Theater Club website –  is so powerful.  And painful. 

The academic scene is readily recognizable. A college professor of history in an elitist academic institution meets with one of her students who is eager for feedback on a paper she’s writing on the American Revolution. 

The fact that Janine (Lisa Banes), the middle-aged professor, is white, and her student Zoe (Jordan Boatman) is black seems normal.  But the conversation that ensues certainly is not.  It’s the collision we all dread in politically correct academe – the nightmarish conflict that lurks beneath the delicate surface of congenial, conventional conversation.  Once the niceties are stripped away, the ground beneath our feet dissolves and the pitfalls deepen.  Where are we?  What are the rules?  There’s no telling what danger lurks ahead.

At first, the two characters play their “roles” well.  Janine, the accessible, supportive professor, is happy to give her time and advice to an eager and ambitious student, even during spring break.  Zoe, clearly grade-conscious, is nonetheless respectful and deferential. The conversation is warm and relaxed – too much so, almost.  Janine takes mini-breaks to stretch her aching back.  Zoe sneaks peeks at her cell phone.

When Zoe presses for more feedback, however, Janine gently asserts that the student hasn’t proven her central point.  According to Zoe, “a successful revolution was only possible because of the existence of slavery.”

From that moment on, the suppressed and smoldering sparks begin to fly. Janine says Zoe hasn’t provided the evidence– that academics are all about research, primary sources, and proof, not feelings.  “I want my students to pursue excellence,” she persists, articulating the institution’s elitist standards.  Zoe challenges her professor’s foundation of knowledge, saying that an oppressed percentage of the population (namely slaves) could hardly have left written records.  Janine’s tone grows patronizing and condescending, as she offers a transparent compliment on Zoe’s writing while asserting that students are all getting their information from the internet.  Zoe accuses Janine of belittling her, saying she’s unfit to pass judgment on her work.

The sparks burst into a flaming forest fire.  Zoe challenges the value of a liberal arts education, calling the college a racist institution.  “You like white ideas, you invalidate my thinking!” she accuses. Each side hardens its position, as the conflict crescendos and the dialectic divide deepens.  “If I’d been in the room [with George Washington], I’d have been a slave!” Zoe exclaims.  “America is an engine of racial oppression!”  Now they’re shouting, interrupting each other, hurling the kind of invectives that you’ve always dreaded hearing on a college campus – or anywhere, for that matter.  “Do you think you’re the first people to get hurt?” Janine shouts.  “Everyone is tired of hearing about racism!” “You have no ability to understand the perspective of your students of color!” cries Zoe.  Both fling insults from their respective playbooks. 

And then comes the terrible first act finale.  Zoe reveals (spoiler alert) that she’s taped their conversation, and that unless Janine admits she’s a racist, Zoe will release the tape on the internet.  Janine refuses.  Curtain. Intermission.

I daren’t reveal the events of act two, taking place several weeks later.  It’s yours to discover, and it’s well worth it. The fallout has been devastating, to say the least.  The situation has spun way out of control for both individuals – each of whom come from a privileged background, each of whose lives have changed, each of whose future is in peril as a result of this confrontation.  Still, the dialectic rages on, as these two characters, stranded in a wasteland of unchartered territory, try desperately to find their way through it. 

“It’s not too late for us to help each other,” Janine entreats Zoe.  Or is it?  The tragedy of the play is watching two characters – beautifully acted by Lisa Banes and Jordan Boatman – play roles in which they’ve been cast because of color, class, and age, reciting lines whose full impact they never fully understand and whose consequences they never anticipated.  Once articulated, they are now accountable for their views – irrevocably.  It’s their shared crisis –  and it’s ours, as we of multiple generations and races struggle today, on our campuses and in our culture, to understand one another.

The Niceties follows in a line of recent plays featuring the teacher/student relationship and include Donald Margulies’s Collected Stories, Adam Rapp’s The Sound Inside, and David Mamet’s controversial Oleanna.   Each offers a compelling perspective on this dynamic, complex relationship.

For me, The Niceties is the most urgent – in its warning of the dangerous times in which we find ourselves.  Burgess boldly challenges current conventional thinking: namely, that “if only we could say what we feel and listen to each other, we could solve our mutual problems.”   Indeed, her play proves that things can only get worse, much worse. 

 So – back to my opening question:  what have we learned from this devastating play? Without the niceties, without the ability not only to listen but to hear, truly hear, there’s a long road ahead for all of us…

The Niceties by Eleanor Burgess, directed by Kimberly Senior, now streaming on the Manhattan Theater Cub website in association with The Huntington through June 13.

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