by Mindy Leaf for Around Town Magazine
Sometimes, rare times, a piece of theater grabs you, shakes you up (even punches you in the gut) and won’t let go. It’s as if the playwright is speaking to you directly, exposing the fester beneath comfortable, comforting beliefs, challenging you and fellow audience members to go forth and change the world.
If you want to see a “feel good” show that leaves you smiling and entertained, avoid THE NICETIES by Eleanor Burgess, playing at Island City Stage. But if you’ve been following the Black Lives Matter movement and have grown increasingly concerned about social justice and political divisiveness in our country, this play will provide insights that no online discussion with experts can touch. You’ll feel it in your bones.
“The Niceties” begins quite nicely. The stage is a perfect recreation of an Ivy League professor’s office — packed with academic tomes that overflow the shelves at times (it’s obvious these hardcover books are much-read and not mere decoration). Daylight shines through a corner window revealing part of a typical New England campus tower (a lovely touch). Master carpenter Ardean Landhuis, who also served as scenic and lighting designer, did a fantastic job. As one who’d spent the past year watching actors in Zoom boxes, it was a special treat to be met by such a carefully crafted set.
Next seen in this two hander are Lisa Kay King as history Professor Janine Bosco and Rachel Michelle Bryant as her third-year student, Zoe Reed. Zoe had asked the professor to review her research paper before submitting it for a final grade and arrives at the office for a conference about her work. These two can be viewed as polar opposites, but also share some similarities. Their external differences are obvious: Zoe is black while Janine is white. Zoe is a millennial; her professor, middle aged. They are both, however, women and, while now comfortably middle class, each in their own way also belong to a marginalized group.
We learn that Zoe arrived at Yale (we can assume it’s Yale from a pennant on the wall) by her scholarly efforts, but also through the privilege of having been raised by upwardly mobile parents. Ironically, Janine’s mother (a Polish immigrant) had once worked as a cleaning lady in Zoe’s current neighborhood. Janine had clawed her way up the ranks of academia at a time when few women attended, let alone taught at, prestigious universities. She is still busy establishing her name as an expert in comparative revolutions while awaiting tenure. She tends to hide the fact that she’s a lesbian.
Janine feels her professional experiences — including precise use of language, respect for established research criteria and understanding the ways of the academic world – were responsible for her success. This is how she advises her students. While I admit that she initially comes across as supercilious, personally — as a writer and editor — I applaud her insistence on the proper use of commas and desire to see writing with more flair. Being close to her in age, I can also sympathize with her annoyance at the younger generation’s perceived laziness in never visiting a library for in-depth research in the stacks, but rather relying solely on easy-access online sources. At how they want similar, quick-fix answers from their college advisors on achieving a just-good-enough grade. And, finally, the millennial’s incorrigible habit — even whilst consulting with a professor — of checking their cellphone.
But most of all, I found myself horrified at how Zoe talked back to her teacher! Janine claims she’s happy to have finally encountered a student who’ll debate her on ideas; but to me Zoe’s attitude was simply rude and disrespectful. I would have asked her to leave the office fifteen minutes into the play. But then we wouldn’t have a play … or witnessed Zoe’s innovative positions, her passion, and her inherent anger and despair. During intermission, I was assured by another boomer with a niece in college that “nowadays that’s just how students talk to their professors.” Apparently this play provides an education in more ways than one.
But what really gets everyone’s hair on fire is the premise of Zoe’s thesis: A successful American revolution was only possible because of the existence of slavery.
Janine’s office features a huge portrait of George Washington. She idolizes our country’s founders for establishing a constitutional democracy after the rare case of a “moderate” revolution. In contrast, Zoe argues that the American Revolution was moderate simply because the people who were really suffering — the “radicals” i.e. slaves — couldn’t get their message out. Janine disagrees, citing research by her reputable colleagues who had never found any evidence of her claim. But Zoe insists that the wealthy and poor whites were united in their interest in preserving slavery. Besides, not every event can provide “evidence,” as slaves rarely wrote or left behind memoirs. She knows how they “felt,” adding it will always be harder to write Black history than White history. To Zoe, America was, and remains, a land of racial oppression.
Nonetheless, her professor insists on the need for sources, challenging her student to “prove me wrong.” She reaches into her bookcase and lends Zoe a real “book made of paper.” She also offers to introduce her to a friend who teaches African-American history at Duke and can possibly help her find the necessary documentation. She even offers a week’s extension on the paper’s due date, but Zoe will have none of that. She insists her weekends are already committed to protest rallies for racial justice. This is her life’s cause; she plans to dedicate herself to social change upon graduation while “everyone in this school is going into investments and banking.” All she needs is a guaranteed B-plus.
Student and teacher dissolve into personal attacks against one another and against what each side stands for in the other’s mind. The things they hate most about how the “other” sees the world are given voice. Their words become brutal and offensive. They no longer see each other as people trying to survive and thrive as best they can but rather as “the enemy.” And in Act Two, they both suffer the consequences of public/social media condemnation from both sides.
Janine attempts to save their futures by issuing a joint statement of reconciliation. But in the end, though both suffer immensely from the blowback of their confrontation, it can’t be done. Zoe, as youth everywhere, has no patience and counters with a comprehensive list of race-oriented demands – lengthy, radical, almost a manifesto of dreams for a perfect world. There is no coming together – even at the expense of ruining their individual lives.
A sad conclusion, and perhaps too reflective of where we find ourselves in today’s America. But, hopefully, experiencing this play will open our eyes. Will help us realize how easy it is to fall into the trap of condemnation when it can be so much better to simply stop for a minute and really see how and why someone outside our own social set perceives an issue … and the world at large. To work to repair the obvious wrongs and to come together, if not in agreement, at least in sympathetic understanding.
The Niceties was performed live at Island City Stage, 2304 N. Dixie Hwy., Wilton Manors 33305 from April 2 – 18. Video tickets of the production are available from April 16 – April 25 at islandcitystage.org or call the box office at 954-928-9800.
The two-hour performance was sensitively and professionally filmed (so you’ll feel like you’re in the audience) and might even have a streaming advantage. Burgess’s dialogue is so sharp, so pithy; her historical facts so enlightening, you might want to hit the pause button to let it all sink in. Or hit rewind if you miss something in all the back-and-forth arguments. “The Niceties” is a highly verbal play, with practically every sentence quote-worthy and worthy of contemplation. An intellectual and emotional roller coaster par excellence whose two actors — onstage the entire time — proved themselves well up to the challenge, as did their esteemed director, Island City’s own associate artistic director Michael Leeds.