Most people who went to college likely remember office hours as a phenomenon that you were glad existed, but rarely utilized. But in The Niceties, a play by Eleanor Burgess currently in its west coast premiere at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, office hours become a battleground between a professor and a student who see the world very differently. Directed by Kimberly Senior, the play debuted in Boston last year, and the actresses who originated the roles are back for this production, a tight two-hander that lives in a nuanced gray area.
Burgess was inspired to write the play after a viral incident that happened at Yale in 2015. After students were cautioned to avoid racially insensitive Halloween costumes, specifically those involving blackface, a professor wrote a highly controversial email in which she wondered if universities were becoming “places of censure and prohibition” and suggested those offended by something either ignore it or approach the offender directly to have a polite debate. Many were furious, insisting this professor was downplaying issues of racial discrimination, while others felt millennial students were asking for too much in terms of expecting institutions to cater to their mental health by being more sensitive. Where is the line when it comes to free speech?
The situation presented in The Niceties is similar. Janine (Lisa Banes) is a widely admired, tenured history professor who has published and edited multiple books. She proudly displays a portrait of George Washington on her office wall, and is extremely confident in her teaching abilities. She is also older, and white. When Zoe (Jordan Boatman), a whip-smart, African-American junior, approaches her professor hoping for feedback on her paper, she does not get the answers she was hoping for. You see, Zoe is spread thin trying to maintain her 3.8 GPA while also organizing political protests at university-sponsored events starring Sandra Day O’Connor and Howard Stern. She spent her last vacation traveling to Ferguson, Missouri following the police shooting of Michael Brown Jr, and she has lofty and specific aspirations for what she plans to achieve after graduation.
Zoe’s thesis is that the American Revolution was only successful because of the existence of slavery, which provided a minority all whites could easily unite against, making them content with staging a moderate revolution rather than a radical one. Her sources are primarily from the internet, and she feels strongly that slavery and other issues facing black Americans were not given the time they deserved in Janine’s class. Janine feels that such a thesis simply cannot be proven with sources that exist, and suggests Zoe do a massive rewrite. From there, things only grow more heated, and the conversation leads to a place that will forever affect the trajectories of both Janine and Zoe’s lives. Frustrated and at her boiling point, Janine exclaims that Zoe should just “get over” being angry about slavery, only to discover Zoe has been recording their confrontation on her iPhone. Without thinking about the ramifications for her own life, Zoe quickly shares the clip with the internet. Act two of the play picks up three weeks after the audio was released into the world, as both women reel from the consequences.
Banes and Boatman are terrific actresses who play off each other beautifully, managing to make nearly two hours of two people talking in a room riveting. Burgess’s writing is smart, particularly in how she draws these two characters to each be so complex that you sometimes cannot decide who is “in the right,” and wonder what that even means. While at first glance the two are diametrically opposed, the old white lady and the young black girl, there is more to both of them than meets the eye. Zoe grew up in a wealthy community with a good deal of financial privilege, and Janine is a lesbian and therefore a member of a marginalized group herself. Throughout their debate, they both make strong points. Janine points out that anger and an unwillingness to listen or compromise is not always the best way to invoke actual change, while Zoe has detailed notes to support racially offensive things Janine has said offhandedly during her lectures. They also have very different views of academia—Janine is old-school, and perhaps understandably cannot support a blogger being cited as a source in a formal essay, while Zoe correctly feels she is entitled to an education that considers her experiences and encourages her to challenge the ideas that have been written in textbooks by white scholars for decades.
The play is set in late March 2016, at the height of the primary elections that would determine the presidential nominees. Janine happily drinks tea out of a Hillary Clinton mug as the outcome we are all now aware of looms over the proceedings like a dark cloud. The initial wave of more overtly Trump-inspired theater seems to be shifting towards an influx of theater like this that takes place just before, relying on what is to come to add another layer to the character dynamics. If the action was set during the current presidency, it would only add more fuel to Zoe’s fire and perhaps make the conversation way too big to ever be contained in less than two hours, which could be why the playwright chose a “simpler time.” Ultimately, The Niceties is a smart piece that examines how personal experience and identity can shape your view of history, and raises a lot of questions about who should get to have the last word.
The Niceties runs at the Geffen Playhouse through May 12th. The running time is 1 hour and 50 minutes, including one intermission. Tickets start at $30 and can be purchased here.