You’d be hard-pressed to imagine a play more timely than The Niceties, an explosive two-hander in which an accomplished white history professor and an activist black student at an elite East Coast university square off over race, revolution, representation, social justice, democracy, power, privilege, and countless other topical, divisive issues. Though Eleanor Burgess’s play was developed in 2017 at the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, and had its premiere in the 2018–2019 season in a co-production by Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company, the Manhattan Theatre Club, and the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, NJ, it has become ever more relevant in the intervening years, with the killing of George Floyd, the right-wing’s vociferous attack on critical race theory, and this month’s fresh drama over UNC’s denial of tenure—then reversal of that decision—to Nikole Hannah-Jones, author of the 1619 Project, who prompty rejected the offer and chose instead to teach at Howard University, a prestigious historically black college.
The play begins with Janine pedantically pointing out grammatical errors in Zoe’s paper, the professor warming up with minor issues before she gets to the crux of the issue. After some pleasantries about families and historical anecdotes, Janine gets to the point: Zoe’s thesis—”A successful American Revolution was only possible because of the existence of slavery”—is “fundamentally unsound.” And from this point on, the cordiality begins to unravel, as both characters dig in to their positions and find offense with what the other is trying to say.
Janine insists that Zoe must support her position with evidence, pointing to the books that fill her office as examples of ways that Zoe can validate her ideas through primary sources. Zoe points out that slaves were unable to leave behind the kind of evidence Janine is looking for, and suggests that the academics responsible for conveying US history—namely privileged white people—view history through an inherently biased lens.
Soon fireworks fly, as each woman digs in to her position and fails to truly listen to the other, professor and student patronizing each other with thinly veiled disdain. More fissures erupt—including a generational divide in terms of how research is done in the digital age—and both characters fall prey to the assumptions they’ve made about each other. The first act ends with a tremendous blow up. The second act begins with both characters exhausted by the media whirlwind that has enveloped them and some hope of reconciliation and collaboration.
I won’t spoil the ending, nor the surprises that each character reveals in the second act. I will say that this production is a tour de force, an engrossing, exciting, thought-provoking piece of theater. Despite the heady, heavy subject matter, the play’s 90 minutes fly by. Stephanie Everett and Andrea Gallo are perfect in their respective roles as Zoe and Janine. Astute direction by Christina Franklin leaves the viewer able to see merit (and fault) in—to use a now-forever-tainted phrase—”both sides.” There are no easy answers, and both parties make missteps that provoke gasps from the audience, saying hurtful things it seems they wish they could retract.
The scenic design, by Juliana von Haubrich, perfectly captures Janine’s Ivory tower office, and the costume design, by Charles Schoonmaker, emphasizes the differences between the two characters. Lara Dubin’s lighting design and James McNamara’s sound design contribute to the verisimilitude of the set—no mean feat given that this tension-filled office takes up its space under a tent at pastoral Hancock Shaker Village.
Chester Theater Company typically falls in the shadow of the larger local theatrical organizations: Berkshire Theatre Group, Barrington Stage Company, Williamstown Theatre Festival, and Shakespeare & Company. Yet producing artistic director Daniel Elihu Kramer consistently selects challenging work and presents it exceptionally well. This production of The Niceties exemplifies the high quality I’ve come to expect from CTC.The play never feels like it’s meant to be a lecture, though you do leave feeling as if you’ve learned something—at the very least about the importance of compassion, empathy, and earnestly listening with an open mind in any meaningful, productive discourse.
The Niceties, produced by Chester Theatre Company, runs through July 25 at Hancock Shaker Village in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.
Go to Chester Theatre for more information.
Photos are by Elizabeth Solaka unless otherwise noted.