‘Niceties’ explores nuance of contentious conversations
While many plays will go through rewrites between productions, Eleanor Burgess’s “The Niceties” while assuredly see some changes before hitting the stage again after its run during the Contemporary American Theater Festival – which wraps up this weekend.
“(The play) is a developmental production and I will be doing rewrites on the script for future productions,” Burgess said. “This production is phenomenal and the crew is doing very creative work.”
“The Niceties” is a two-woman play focusing on the conflict which arises between university professor Janine and a student named Zoe. The interesting twist in the play is that the pair should have a great relationship. Both are academic, left wing critical thinkers, yet they focus on their differences rather than their similarities.
While reviewing a draft of a paper Zoe has written for Janine’s class, the two come to be at odds with one another.
“(Zoe) has written a paper for Janine’s class in which she argues that the American Revolution stayed moderate because of slavery. Janine tries to give notes about the paper – trying to be academic and helpful – but Zoe wants to defend her work,” Burgess said. “The heart of the play is dealing with how much trouble we have in this country talking about race.”
In “The Niceties,” Zoe is a young, African-American student, while Janine is a 1960s liberal white feminist. And while audiences would think the two would see eye-to-eye on an issue such as race, Burgess explores the nuance of political divisions – even within a single ideal or worldview.
“I wrote it with two liberals having conflicting views because we are increasingly seeing that. Academia in the northeast is liberal in general and I became fascinated with liberal professors beginning to clash with liberal students,” Burgess said. “It is a generational divide, as well as a philosophical one. With this election I was surprised by so many liberals saying ‘Let’s unite,’ but I think Democrats are divided more now than ever before. This is true on the right as well – the Republicans aren’t united. There is an explosion of different opinions, and each group is trying to do what they think is right – often that brings conflict and chaos.”
While the play touches on political divides, the drama is centered around an exceedingly contentious subject.
“We are running into a moment in time with race where people thought racial divisions were over. But we are starting to only unpack those divisions. People are tired of those conversations, but they are more widespread and important now than before,” Burgess said. “So many conversations come back to race. You can be talking about a TV show or a stop sign, and it can morph into a conversation on race. People can get their feelings hurt and become defensive – it is a difficult conversation.”
Not only do people get their feelings hurt when it comes to discussion on race in real life, the conflict between Zoe and Janine quickly becomes venomous, which Burgess says is art imitating life.
“We have lost our ability to disagree with one another in patient, collaborative ways. I’m interested in how we often fail to have productive conversations about difficult topics. With racism, however, people are worried for their lives,” Burgess said.
And while the conversation of race rages on within the play – as well as the country – the issue itself isn’t as easy as black and white.
“If either of these women were 100 percent wrong or 100 percent right, there wouldn’t be a play. They both have important things to say, but they each get things really wrong, too. They have to duke it out, and that is where we all are right now. Audiences should have their beliefs shaken when walking away from this play – the answers aren’t going to be easy, but this is a conversation worth having,” Burgess concluded.
“The Niceties” is directed by Kimberly Senior and stars Robin Walsh as Janine and Margaret Ivey as Zoe. The production runs at Studio 112. Remaining performances include: Today at 2 p.m.; Saturday at 5 p.m. and 9 p.m.; and Sunday at noon.