By Richard Campbell
“It’s the niceties that make the difference fate gives us the hand, and we play the cards.” Arthur Schopenhauer
The Huntington Theatre at the Wimberly in the Calderwood Pavilion features playwright Eleanor Burgess’ argumentative drama “The Niceties” until October 6th before it moves onto New York’s Manhattan Theatre Club. This play is tailored to the Boston area in its expeditious treatment of liberal arts education and the culture wars. Perhaps it is not surprising that a Brookline native who attended plays at the Huntington since she was twelve would become a Fellow of the theatre. But consider Ms. Burgess was a history major at Yale as an undergraduate, switched course to writing at NYU for graduate work and then started playwriting after sojourning in London. We know where the source material for the rarified air of elite education hails from.
Inspired directly by the playwright’s experiences on the campus of Yale, the central conceit is an out of control debate between a black student Zoe, played by Jordon Boatman, and her sixtyish white professor Janine, portrayed by Lisa Barnes. If you are the kind of theater patron who enjoys the lawyerly sparring of people engaged in proving high minded ideas about the true carnage in American history, this is your ticket. The carefully sculpted dialogue covers complex ideas regarding race, elitism, the pedagogy of the oppressed, revolution, the authority of the dominant culture, intellectual freedom and honesty- and finally the deep unfairness of the of the world.
The whole play takes place in Cameron Anderson’s cleverly designed office set with its eaves ceiling slanted across the stage, gothic window, tasteful off-white walls, and centerpiece desk. There are portraits of Washington, Pancho Villa, Lech Walesa, Nelson Mandela and women suffragettes. Filled with books which the professor plies the truth from amidst historical explorations, the feeling of a cosseted sanctuary is complete. At the center of the argument is whose version of history is accepted, and the ability of the humanities to open minds, not close them. One of the primary reasons to be a playwright is to elevate us over the ugly history of the world to make life bearable for people. In this Ms. Burgess succeeds admirably. The fragile state of the American conscience (or lack thereof) is completely on display here as we are pulled like taffy through classical lines of thought interspersed with painful personal testimony. At first the matter seems merely academic, with the professor Janine taking the upper hand, until a few decisions by her student Zoe gather the play to high drama.
Two-character plays are so often fencing matches, and this one is no exception. We open with professor Janine making some clever jousts in critiquing her student’s thesis, while praising her, the professor tries to show critical judgement failures, as well as grammatical and research errors. It is a painfully familiar scene for anyone who has attended liberal arts college and had the audacity to submit a less than developed set of ideas in print to an esteemed professor with advanced editing skills. But it doesn’t take long for the professor to tear into the student’s work with personal invective, squashing the student’s effort for its flawed premise and poor execution.
Zoe listens and responds often obliquely in the manner of wise millennials, cherry picking inconsistencies in her professor’s critique while sipping on her Starbucks, checking her cell phone, and making plans to go to protests. Her professor believes Zoe’s extra-curricular activities should be put on-hold so she can focus on her college work. She alternately praises Zoe’s potential while judging her generation of Google savages. Zoe is focused upon the pain and anguish of years of racist oppression; Janine sees the long historical road to the fulfillment of the sacred words of the Constitution. Janine would do anything to have been in the room at the Continental Congress, and greatly admires George Washington. Zoe sees the founders of the United States, and George Washington in particular, as criminals who ran their revolution on the backs of slaves. Intellectual entrapment becomes the fulcrum of the play.
Janine provides arguments against her student’s opinions and though she may be right on historical grounds, her caustic derision of the student is unprofessional. Janine castigates Zoe for being too negative to people of power who can help her and lets her know the real working world frowns on her self-centered pity. Zoe responds that she can’t be expected to genuflect to a dominate culture that oppresses her. Zoe wants a real revolution to overthrow oppressive white America-and she critiques her professor’s lack of cultural sensitivity for mispronouncing ethnic names. Zoe says all of these things, despite having come from a privileged neighborhood herself and attending an elite university- a point Janine does not fail to mention.
We know that the professor is going to regret running her mouth so much about this particular students’ negative views and making unintentional racist statements. The cycling through of elemental philosophical truths, the ugly role of slavery in the history aside; this is a generational power struggle. The two find some common ground in various struggles as women, and their mutual hatred for old, bigoted Republican men. But even in their moments of agreement we know just beneath the surface are simmering coals ready to be ignited.
There is more smoke than fire in this production, for however fascinating the erudite arguments, the staging is pretty stagnant at times, as director Kimberly Senior edges her combatants gingerly around the office. Lisa Barnes does her dandiest to find bits of business that show she controls the kingdom, playing to the audience adroitly, flailing her arms, sitting desk side to get personal, collapsing sanguine at the end of articulate speeches she surely has given before. Jordon Boatman plays the trapped adolescent well in the limiting first act, until she fights back holding her cell phone as a weapon, revealing to the professor that her admonishing words have been telegraphed across campus. Act one closes as Janine attacks the student to wrestle the cell phone from her hands.
The second act then is the time for the professor’s schooling, and significantly the offensive portrait of George Washington, the criminal oppressor, is removed. Jordon Boatman as Zoe comes alive in the second act like a tortured animal that is released, romps a bit around the office, lording it over her once castigating professor, and plays well the dodgy insecurity of her new-found power. Realizing her tenure may be under review because of the released recording Janine attempts to reach a rapprochement with Zoe. As the grand Mea Culpa ensues, Janine explains the point of her revolutionary class is that almost all the violent revolutions in the world have ended very badly, and that Zoe is a “baby” American who doesn’t understand how badly her line of action can turn out. While Zoe becomes more militant having won the upper hand she insists that if they are to write a joint proclamation, (Janine’s idea) to alleviate tension on campus that it must include a series of manifestos designed to cure inequality at the university level. From making sure the campus has full minority representation, to good counseling for non-traditional students, to exact representative of minority faculty matching the national population, Zoe has a string of demands-some level headed, others irrationally discriminatory.
Clearly the professor has lost her moral authority and only the radical revolutionary who usurped that authority calls the shots- or does she? The most telling clue to the unsustainable pyrrhic victory is Zoe’s insistence that the professor grovel in front of her, declare herself to be a racist to the world and resign her position to be replaced by a professor of color. In begging for forgiveness, one might say that the professor lost the battle on campus but appears to be more enlightened by concessions to her student than vice versa. The playwright is signaling to us that the contemporary war on painful historical truth is not so easily won when there are dedicated historians in our midst, even if they carry their own historical baggage. While the anti-intellectualism in America is brightly burning, we forget to the peril on all sides, the civilizing culture of our universities.