A flyer inserted into the program for Writers Theatre's production of Eleanor Burgess' 2018 “The Niceties” advises viewers not to take sides in the debate between an esteemed, white, Baby Boomer college history professor and her black Millennial student, a political science major.
It's hard not to.
But if you're anything like me, you'll find your sympathies switching back and forth between Janine (Mary Beth Fisher), the teacher, and Zoe (Ayanna Bria Bakari), the pupil, as their discussion unfolds and escalates into argument, with political generalizations degenerating into personal attacks, and both the niceties of civil discourse and the chance of finding a common ground slipping away. Marti Lyons' carefully calibrated direction contributes to these shifts of opinion, as do the complicated, nuanced performances of both actors.
Set in the spring of 2016 during President Obama's last year in office, the provocative play owes a debt to David Mamet's “Oleanna,” though the issue is not sexual harassment, and the agendas of the adversaries are different. Also, the two women have more in common than is at first apparent, and their power struggle remains more in the intellectual realm.
Janine teaches the history of revolutions at an elite Connecticut institution (possibly Yale), and the play opens in her book-cluttered office—impeccably designed in-the-round by Courtney O'Neill—with Zoe patiently listening to her professor's comments on a draft of her paper about the American Revolution. Janine, secure in the prerogatives of her position and sounding slightly superior, initially suggests revisions to “niceties” like comma placement and sentence parallelism, but when Zoe asks if she can just make those changes, she's told that her thesis is “fundamentally flawed.” In fact, Janine wishes she'd initially submitted a three-page summary for evaluation.
Taken aback, Zoe actually convinces Janine that her thesis is valid as well as bold and original. She contends that the American Revolution would not have been possible in its moderate form without the institution of slavery, because the existence of a class of subjugated people who couldn't rise up kept it from becoming radicalized.
While Janine concedes the point, she counters that Zoe needs to provide hard evidence as proof rather than relying on Google and internet opinions. She tells her to go to the library and also offers to put her in touch with a scholar who can help, as well as to give her a one-week extension.
But Zoe asserts that there are no first-hand accounts because the slaves couldn't write them. Anyway, she says, she doesn't have time to do the research because of her involvement in campus protests—including an upcoming one of Sandra Day O'Connor, to Janine's amazement—and she needs at least a B+ on the paper to enable her to get the job she wants.
Although tensions rise from here, and Zoe accuses Janine of racist attitudes and statements, which she starts recording (without Janine's permission), I found myself thinking that anyone who has watched TV's “Finding Your Roots” with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is aware, there's a lot of first-hand evidence about slavery available if one knows where to look. Finding it on short enough notice to rewrite a paper quickly arguably is beyond the ability of a student at Zoe's level, but maybe Janine could have offered her more options to complete the assignment to the necessary standards.
Of course, this very lack of flexibility on both sides—an inability to see and/or understand the other person's point of view—is what Burgess is trying to highlight. Zoe posts the recording online with a chain of disastrous consequences for both women, including suspension for Janine and backlash for Zoe that is debilitating.
In the second act, a very apologetic Janine invites Zoe to her office in the hopes they can put out a joint statement that will save her job and help them both. It does not go well. They tiptoe around each other initially, but their philosophical differences lead to even more acrimony than before. Basically, Janine regards gradual political change as progress, while Zoe thinks the wait for equality has been too long and wants radical revolution now.
Some of this rehashes what happened in the first act, but learning that Janine is a lesbian adds to the dynamic, especially since Zoe assumes otherwise. In other words, she's as myopic as she accuses her professor of being. Passionately played by Bakari, she also has a surfeit of self-righteousness and no sense of humor, unlike Fisher's wry Janine, who can see the comic aspects of almost everything, even her own downfall.
I must admit that “The Niceties” left me with a few questions. Most importantly, I couldn't figure out what Janine said on the recording that was so damaging she was desperate for it not to be posted, particularly since Zoe's half of the conversation seemed equally charged.
Maybe I missed something. The show certainly offers plenty to think—and talk—about.