“Niceties”: A Play Where Common Goals Are Not Enough
“Niceties” is a two-person play that expands the claim that there are two sides to every story. This intense piece takes two people who agree on issues - but disagree on how to attain their goals. It shows how two conflicting sides of an issue can both be right and how allies can turn into enemies.
What makes the work so compelling is as members of the audience you too will be conflicted in deciding which individual is closer to interpreting the path to justice. Your answer will likely depend on your age, life experiences and social status.
Though written as a two-act play (wisely performed at Chester Theatre Company without an intermission) I suspect playwright Eleanor Burgess considers it a three-act play. This is a work designed to encourage arguments. The third act is the intense discussion that is guaranteed on the drive home.
“Niceties” is more than a drama. It’s almost two hours of debate between two thoughtful people that touches on almost every social and political hot button that is being contested today. It was written in 2018 and set in 2016. It was a time when the first Black President of the United States was completing his second term and it was expected we would soon have the first female as president. The terms Cancel Culture and Critical Race Theory were unknown to the public.
The situation revolves about Zoe, a political science major at a prestigious east coast college who meets with her professor, Janine, who is an expert in the history of revolution. They meet to review a paper Zoe, an African-American, is submitting early in order to have time to engage in a number of public and controversial protests. The professor is a 60-year old accomplished white female who regards protesting as an extra-curricular activity.
After agreeing on a few minor punctuation and grammatical changes in the paper, they get to the heart of the matter. The professor rejects the student’s major premise that “a successful American Revolution was only possible because of the existence of slavery.”
The professor denies the validity of the paper because the student provides no supporting documentation from slaves to justify her premise. Zoe counters that no thoughts of slaves are available because all oppressed people lack a voice in the society in which they exist. This means, she says, they are excluded from history.
Playwright Burgess, who graduated Yale as a history major, makes a coherent case for both sides and while philosophically complex, the debates are never dense and always enlightening. As the arguments become personal, each individual becomes less tolerant of the other.
It is also clear that Janine and Zoe are the same people separated by generation and race. It’s revealed that the professor is an ardent feminist and a lesbian who battled many barriers to achieve her status as an advisor to high powers in academia and government.
An interesting twist is Zoe is a child of privilege. Her family is upper-middle class and living in the same neighborhood where the professor’s mother, an immigrant from Poland, cleaned houses to support her family. This background begs the question as to when do yesterday’s radicals become today’s establishment.
At some point the play questions the boundaries one can cross when advocating for a cause. Zoe’s zeal for wanting extreme and total change overnight is unrealistic and self-defeating. More important, it is personally destructive to others. The student assumes the attitude that he who is not with me is against me. Worse, it morphs into he who is not with me should be smitten. And if that “he” happens to be democratic guidelines, so be it.
Director Christina Franklin is brilliant in guiding the actors to create determined characters who have strong personalities, without making them appear arrogant or dislikable. Indeed, there are times when Janine’s patient approach to Zoe’s challenges can seem frustratingly passive. However, the deceptive wisdom of actress Andrea Gallo’s subtle choices bears fruit when the actress finally vents and surrenders all pretense of political correctness.
Stephanie Everett has the tough assignment of trying not to show Zoe as only a knee-jerk extremist. Though her goals appear unattainable when offered as a laundry list, if taken one at a time her demands are rational rather than radical.
Zoe is rarely a sympathetic character, and though calculating, she is always honest in her desire to create a more equitable society. It’s strong work by two terrific actors who help the audience understand the complexities of change and the risk of refusing to change.
“Niceties” is a play filled with debate about liberal ideals. However, the argument of how safely radical change can take place is not limited to one spot on the political spectrum. The play is about understanding all the other points of view within a society.
As one character says, “We can’t always agree, but we can believe that people feel the way they do and that they have reasons for feeling that way.”
“The Niceties” produced by Chester Theatre Company under a tent at Shaker Village in Hancock, MA. Through July 25. For tickets and schedule information call 413-354-7771 or go to chestertheatre.org
Bob Goepfert is theater reviewer for the Troy Record.
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