It’s not an academic discussion, but this lively play most definitely starts a conversation that will continue well after the lights go down.
Eleanor Burgess’ “The Niceties” is fundamentally a debate session. Metaphorically, the argument is set on the third rail of American politics: race and the legacy of white privilege. Physically, it unfolds on the Urbanite Theatre stage.
The debate takes the form of a student-teacher conference at Yale University in 2016. Zoe (Bonita Jackson), a student, is young, gifted and black. Her history professor, Janine (Kate Young), is middle-aged, gifted and white. Janine critiques Zoe’s paper; she defends it. The debate starts politely, but slowly turns nasty. Like some radiated monster in a 1950s horror movie, the debate keeps growing, and soon leaves Zoe’s paper far behind.
Stripped of the theatrical frame, here are the opposing arguments:
Zoe’s Thesis: Slavery made America what it is today. Even poor white people got a boost from unpaid black labor. They made common cause with white elites (i.e.: the Founding Fathers) and didn’t launch a radical revolution. America’s moderate revolution succeeded as a result — and laid the foundation for a system of white privilege. Today, privileged white academics like Janine are complicit in that system. Yale’s whitewashed history textbooks paint pretty pictures of white saviors (racist criminals like George Washington) and gloss over 250 years of slavery and 100 years of segregation. No more. It’s time to stop denying the black experience. Slavery explains everything. Being nice achieves nothing. When a woman of color like Zoe speaks, a white woman like Janine has only one legitimate response: Shut up and listen. Debate is over; demands begin. Within five years, Yale’s curriculum should be decolonized, and its students and faculty should resemble the population of the United States. Starting now, Janine should resign and make room for a person of color. But that’s still not good enough. America is still waiting for its real, radical revolution. Zoe plans to light the match.
Janine’s Counterthesis: America avoided a radical revolution, thanks to charismatic leaders like George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison. These slave-owning hypocrites (who were men of their time, after all) laid the foundations of American freedom. It’s an imperfect democracy, yes, but it’s still the best government on earth. That’s not to deny the legacy of slavery, segregation and white privilege. Race is an important part of the American story. But it’s not the whole story — so drop the racism thing. Nobody wants a guilt trip. Life isn’t fair, but try to stay in conversation with people you disagree with. Engage in a serious intellectual discussion and be nice, OK? Just put down your phone, stop whining about micro-aggressions and do your research. And, whatever you do, don’t sign up for a radical revolution. They usually end in chaos or dictatorships.
There’s more to it, obviously. But that’s the gist.
Theatrical debate can be a snoozefest. But director Natalie Novacek keeps it lively — and slowly ratchets up the tension. In your gut, you know the niceties won’t last very long.
Young and Jackson deliver amazing characterizations. Jackson’s Zoe is sharp as a tack — and gearing up for taking a stand that might destroy her bright future. Jackson’s Janine clearly underestimates her apt pupil. And Janine actually thinks she’s on the side of the liberal angels! She’s mentoring an African-American student, helping her — and that’s a good thing in her eyes. Janine’s benevolence is a blind spot. It hides a multitude of un-PC sins.
Ryan E. Finzelber’s claustrophobic set is brilliantly shabby and lovingly detailed. A cramped, triangular space, like thousands of other professor’s offices. Prints of Jacques-Louis David’s “Oath of the Tennis Court,” Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of a rouged George Washington and Lech Walesa testify to Janine’s self-righteous, neo-liberal character. (The college bulletin board outside the auditorium is an added bonus. The academic drivel on the flyers is a hoot.) Sofia Gonzalez’ practical, unglamorous costumes evoke academic indifference to fashion.
Theatrically, it’s all very gripping. But who wins the debate?
That’s a tough one.
Not to change the subject, but Burgess is a brilliant writer. She’s got a great command of dialogue and story structure — and springs a clever trap door at the end of the first act: a reputation-ruining twist.
But the argument is the point in this play, not the story. And Burgess’ argument is arguably a stacked deck. So who wins the argument?
Zoe. There’s just no argument.
I once criticized David Mamet’s “Oleanna” for equivocating. I now take it back. Burgess (clearly following in Mamet’s punchy footsteps) doesn’t equivocate. Zoe is right; Janine is wrong. No two ways about it.
But Janine is a bit of a strawperson. And she’s a cleverly crafted stealth strawperson. She seems sympathetic, at first. Janine’s not a boastful, smug, white guy in a MAGA hat. She’s a liberal, lesbian, Polish-American woman who initially seems to be on Zoe’s side. In the debate, Janine also gets in plenty of good lines. But you slowly start to see through her. Beneath her polite persona, Janine is entitled, superior, smug and patronizing. (In this staging, she turns her back to Zoe much of the time.) Janine is also blind to her many micro-aggressions. (That portrait of George Washington. A smirk at an insensitive colonialist’s pun.) And, yes, my friends. Janine is an old white woman. Zoe is a young black woman. So why does that matter?
Because it doesn’t matter. Not in the realm of ideas, anyway.
Janine is wrong. Zoe is right. But you don’t reach that conclusion through logical argument. Although Zoe wins the power struggle, she doesn’t actually win the debate. But it feels like she does. Because you don’t like Janine.
If the personal is the political, Janine’s personal flaws infect her political argument. And she shouldn’t be arguing with Zoe in the first place. She should shut up and listen.
If you’re an aging white academic, the lessons are obvious. Play it safe. Kill the conversation. Don’t talk back when an angry millennial is screaming at you. Be sure you check them for electronic devices and sign a non-disclosure agreement before you talk to them at all.
Based on the script, that’s not Burgess’ intended takeaway. Based on our interview, she doesn’t want to kill the conversation. Based on this performance, Janine should’ve kept her mouth shut. OK.
So, who gets to tell the American story? What’s up for debate, and what’s off the table? Where do you draw the line? Who gets to draw it?
You won’t find the answers here. You will find plenty to argue about on the ride home.
Try to be nice.