January 23, 2019

A Debate Between a Professor and a Student Disrupts Their Lives; Eleanor Burgess’ Edgy, Topical “The Niceties” Premieres at McCarter.

“THE NICETIES”: Performances are underway for “The Niceties.” Directed by Kimberly Senior, the play runs through February 10 at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre. Zoe, a college student (Jordan Boatman, left) and Janine, a history professor (Lisa Banes) have a contentious discussion — and face its aftermath. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Choices have consequences,” a professor admonishes a student in The Niceties. In this multifaceted drama by Eleanor Burgess, a critique of a paper becomes a debate about race and American history. In the course of their conversation the characters choose words, and actions, that disrupt their lives.

On the surface, The Niceties is about racial injustice and its connection to American history. On a deeper fundamental level, the play examines the extent to which communication is difficult, particularly when conflict is magnified by social media. Generational tensions — including parent-child relationships — and gender issues are explored, as well as the conflict between idealism and pragmatism.

The show is inspired by conversations that took place in 2015 at Yale, the playwright’s alma mater. A debate “started with a disagreement between some administrators and a faculty member over whether there should be a university policy on Halloween costumes that might be racially offensive,” Burgess tells Liam Gibbs, McCarter’s literary intern. “I was so fascinated by how we could reach this place where nuanced disagreement was impossible.”

The Niceties is set in March of 2016 at a university in the Northeast. Zoe, an African American woman who is a junior at the school, is meeting with Janine, a white professor of history. Zoe is there to get feedback on a draft of a paper that she has written for Janine’s class on revolutions.

The women would seem to share political views, as both are Democrats; Zoe is sad that Obama’s term is almost over, and Janine is excited at the prospect of a Hillary Clinton presidency. However, they find little common ground.

Like the clutter in Janine’s office, the breadth of issues explored by the script is deceptive, masking a sharp focus. Technology is a crucial source of friction; this is clear early in the show. One of Janine’s first pieces of advice to Zoe is to proofread from a hard copy rather than on a computer. Later Janine questions the validity of sources Zoe has found on the internet, and she is irritated by Zoe’s habit of looking at her phone.

Janine reveals that her colleagues jokingly refer to students as “digital natives” and “technological savages.” Zoe quickly observes the racial connotation behind this generational gibe; she notes that “native” and “savage” are terms that have been used to refer to marginalized people by their oppressors.

To Zoe’s dismay, Janine tells her that her thesis is flawed, and that she should rewrite the paper entirely. Janine objects to Zoe’s argument that “a successful American Revolution was only possible because of the existence of slavery” because it lacks evidence, though she reevaluates this opinion, telling Zoe to seek additional primary sources.

Zoe argues that some people lacked the ability or privilege to leave evidence behind. She also reveals that she wrote the paper during spring break, and that she organizes a lot of protests against social injustice, which will leave limited time for rewrites. Zoe hopes to receive an activism fellowship after graduation, for which she will need a high GPA.

Janine is astonished that Zoe’s activism has included protesting decisions made by Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman on the Supreme Court. Janine is frustrated by Zoe’s lack of appreciation for the progress her generation has made on behalf of women, and unsympathetically refers to Zoe’s political activities as “extracurriculars.” This leads to a disagreement about the purpose of higher education.

The conversation becomes even more hostile when Zoe criticizes ways in which she finds Janine negligent in class, such as mispronouncing students’ names, and failing to ask about preferred pronouns. Zoe requests that more African American history be added to the syllabus. Janine is unconvinced of the relevance to her class, and later remarks, “Everyone is tired of hearing about racism.”

Zoe reveals that she has been recording the conversation, and demands that Janine admit that she is a racist. Janine maintains that she has not said anything wrong, but she tries to grab the phone. However, the recording already is online.

A month later, the women have another meeting in the office. Janine apologizes to Zoe for her lack of empathy in the first meeting, and Zoe apologizes for the damage her actions have done to Janine’s professional and family life: she has been suspended without pay, publication of her book has been postponed, and her son hardly speaks to her.

Zoe admits that she has received death threats. Janine suggests that a joint statement could repair the damage that the recording has done to both of their lives. Janine will say that she is grateful that Zoe has made her aware of problems with both the subject and her teaching; she offers to let Zoe say anything she wants.

It becomes tempting to question the sincerity of Janine’s apology. Has she actually done any self-reflection, or does she merely hope for the joint statement? In any case, Zoe responds with a list of demands that includes greater diversity among the student body, as well as a resource center for underprivileged students.

The acrimony between the women returns when Janine finds Zoe’s ideas unrealistic and criticizes her strident demeanor and methods. She insists that democracy must be given time, but Zoe retorts that democracy does not work for those in the minority.

Jordan Boatman as Zoe, and Lisa Banes as Janine, each give performances that are energetic, impassioned, and marked by impeccable timing. The pace at which verbal barbs are uttered, and retorts fired, suggests that both characters have had some variant on this conversation several times before; neither is particularly interested in listening to what the other has to say, which is one of the main sources of conflict.

Director Kimberly Senior’s staging underlines the shifting power dynamics between Janine and Zoe. In the first act, Janine sits comfortably behind her desk. In the second act, when Zoe presents her demands, she is behind the desk. By letting the characters alternate between sitting and standing at strategic points, Senior reinforces this concept — and maintains visual interest — by playing with vertical levels.

The set design by Cameron Anderson makes Janine’s artfully claustrophobic office, which is surrounded by black bricks, into a metaphorical ivory tower. The walls are white, and the ceiling — like history — is slanted. There is a window, but it does not appear to offer Janine a view of what is happening outside. However, in tandem with the set, D.M. Wood’s lighting explores the extent to which this seclusion is a façade.

Burgess has a vast array of issues she wishes to explore, but she has taken care to make their presentation organic to the characters — ensuring that Zoe and Janine come across as complex, often flawed human beings, rather than mouthpieces for commentary. The playwright also avoids taking sides; both characters have valid points to make, and worthwhile life experiences to share.

The Niceties is a succinct, relentlessly candid and, in places, unexpectedly humorous glimpse at the tone of our national discourse. The play is more interested in presenting issues and raising questions than attempting to offer solutions. How to continue the conversation, with families and communities, is the audience’s choice.