“I’m thrilled to be working at the Huntington – the place where I saw my first plays as a teenager, and the place that gave me my start as a professional playwright through the Huntington Playwriting Fellows program. And I’m extra thrilled to bring this particular play to Boston. A story about academic power and liberal dogmas, about frighteningly smart people and the stories we tell ourselves about history – it’s made for this city.”
Brookline playwright and former Huntington Playwriting Fellow Eleanor Burgess captures the zeitgeist in her fast-paced and intense new play, The Niceties, now receiving its world premiere by the Huntington Theatre Company at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts. Inspired by a 2015 firestorm at Yale University, her alma mater, Burgess dives head first into the deep end of racial politics in academia, and tackles difficult questions that are most often avoided in discourse in America today. She employs a millennial black student and a 60-year old white professor to effectively argue opposing sides of the debate, but Burgess is smart enough not to choose sides, leaving it up to the audience to contemplate their own thoughts and feelings.
Set at an unnamed elite university in the Northeast in late March, 2016, The Niceties is informed by its time and place. It is primary season, before the presidential nominees were decided, and Burgess allows a bit of nostalgia to sneak into the script when the audience realizes that Zoe (Jordan Boatman) and Janine (Lisa Banes) have yet to learn what we know now. Both women are brilliant liberals who meet in Janine’s office to discuss Zoe’s term paper about the impact of slavery on the American Revolution. What begins as a seemingly benign advisory session evolves into a debate about the merit of Zoe’s work, who determines what is considered history, who is excluded from the discussion, and how white privilege results in power imbalances.
The quality of Burgess’ writing in The Niceties is at an extremely high level. We know at once how smart her characters are by the cogent arguments they deliver, and the conversation flows like a mighty river that has some placid stretches, but roars into the higher stages of whitewater classification as the conflict intensifies. Banes and Boatman are up to the task, both paddling like crazy to get through the rapids without crashing into rocks or being thrown overboard (to continue the metaphor). However, Janine and Zoe are on a treacherous journey that will alter their lives inexorably. Each woman believes in the rightness of her position and staunchly defends it, unprepared for the unforeseen consequences.
Scenic Designer Cameron Anderson’s set is a marvel, its angular white ceiling extending low to meet a long, squat row of built-in bookshelves. In an interview in the program, Anderson explains her process in which she develops “a visual metaphor to express the ideas of the play.” Janine’s office is an attic space that serves to express the tension between the women, while also reflecting how the world is crushing both of them. The all-female design team of Kara Harmon (costume), D. M. Wood (lighting), and Elisheba Ittoop (original music & sound), brought together by Director Kimberly Senior, is poised to create a feminist-centric gestalt which is an essential component of telling this story.
One of the functions of theater is to hold a mirror up to society; to do so in an intelligent and entertaining way is a greater height to scale. Burgess achieves that height and drives a conversation that is a non-starter in our divided society, even among people who are on the same side of the partisan divide. What are we afraid of? Can talking about racism make it worse? We cannot begin to repair the damage and heal the deep wounds if we do not listen to each other. That is just the beginning, and progress may be slow and halting, but standing still means going in reverse. The Niceties is a good place to start.
Written by Eleanor Burgess, Directed by Kimberly Senior; Scenic Design, Cameron Anderson; Costume Design, Kara Harmon; Lighting Design, D. M. Wood; Original Music & Sound Design, Elisheba Ittoop; Production Stage Manager, Emily F. McMullen; Stage Manager, Sam Layco; Fight Consultant, Angie Jepson; Properties Master, Kristine Holmes.
Cast by Lisa Banes, Jordan Boatman.
Performances through October 6 by Huntington Theatre Company, in association with Manhattan Theatre Club and McCarter Theatre Center, at the Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, MA 02116; Box Office 617-266-0800 or huntingtontheatre.org.
Approximate run time: The Niceties plays in approximately 1 hour and 45 minutes, including one 10-minute intermission.