Eleanor Burgess’s confrontational play gets people talking about difficult issues.
McCarter Theatre is handing us a bowl of etiquette, conflict, and history (or some version of it) courtesy of Eleanor Burgess. Some of you might recall reading back in 2015 about a campus-wide email that was circulated throughout Yale University by the assistant master of Silliman College asking students to be sensitive about their Halloween costume choices, avoiding things such as feathered headdresses, turbans, or modifying their skin tone. The wife of the Silliman College master sent out her own email advising students: “if they don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended, and the ability to tolerate offense is the mark of a free and open society.”
That news spread quickly across the campus and the country. Playwright and Yale-alumna Burgess was surprised that neither side could speak sensibly to the other about the incident. She used this occurrence as a catalyst for the play. It is literally art imitating life. Directed by Kimberly Senior, The Niceties tackles awkward topics that are easy for people to go down a slippery slope and allows us to be a fly on the wall to ponder how we would have handled things differently… or the same.
The play takes place during the unprecedented presidential election in 2016, with Zoe Reed (Jordan Boatman), a black political science major in her junior year at an elite university located in Connecticut, meeting with her white history professor, Janine Bosko (Lisa Banes), to review a draft of her thesis on revolutions. Janine, one of the first women to attend the school and is now a well-respected, tenured professor, starts by commenting on grammar and emphasizing the importance of getting references from books in the library after Zoe sites Google searches as her source. Zoe’s argument is that the American Revolution was only possible due to slavery. Janine indicates there are not enough sources to validate Zoe’s thesis, who rebuts that slaves weren’t able to document their lives. Prof. Bosko indicates that Zoe will need more time to rewrite her thesis. Janine is condescending, Zoe is bitter and frustrated, and their tête-à-tête leads to a more challenging conversation about race and their generation gap with regrets that cannot be reversed.
Boatman, who recently graduated from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, is certainly relatable as a college student, but has the depth and range of an older actor. While her character is spiteful, Boatman shows a slither of remorse and then quickly challenges her adversary. Her gestures divulge many emotions, from head nods confirming what she believes to be true to feelings of being patronized.
Banes truly captures the movements, confidence, and cadence of an accomplished professor. She’s also has an air of superiority. Banes is nonchalant until the conversation becomes and then she goes into panic mode and becomes frantic, fully understanding what had just happened. Additionally, she has a good comedic sense as she slyly interjects her wit.
The Niceties is co-produced by Huntington Theatre Company and Manhattan Theatre Company and McCarter is the third run, so the production is a well-oiled machine by now. This two-character play is very powerful. It gradually builds tension and has a slight twist. If you see it a second time, you will pick up on the subtle clues.
The Niceties is bold and brave for tackling racism, sexism, ageism, elitism, and the freedom of speech in the digital age. The challenge Burgess brings us is to open up dialogue about this play.
There will be a post-show interactive conversation facilitated by a member of McCarter’s artistic staff, perhaps featuring the cast members. The Post-show discussion will occur directly following the 2 PM performance on Sunday, January 27.
The Niceties runs January 11 through February 10 in the Berlind Theatre. Tickets start at $25 and are on sale now online at mccarter.org, by phone at (609) 258-2787, or in person at the McCarter Ticket Office, located at 91 University Place in Princeton. The production’s running time is 90 minutes, with one 15 minute intermission.