By E.M. Fredric
I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples. Mother Theresa
Westwood, CA (The Hollywood Times) 4/19/19 – Playwright Eleanor Burgess’ The Niceties – directed by Kimberly Senior -West Coast Premiere opened at the Geffen on April 17th. How refreshing to see a play that rips into an unsuspecting audience by making us a part of a debate over a history paper. The two-act, two character play is set at the end of the Obama administration in history Professor Janine Bosko’s (Lisa Banes) office where her student, Zoe Reed (Jordan Boatman) is told that she needs to go beyond the cursory corrections in her thesis paper on the American Revolution – in order to procure a top grade – by doing a major rewrite based on historical facts to back up her arguments. Zoe believes her googled footnotes and her personal experience as a young black woman are proof enough to defend her paper as she also points out that never in history were the important voices of those times – the slaves – recorded, which makes proving her thesis an impossibility.
The professor comes from a Polish immigrant family, has worked hard and struggled as a woman in a man’s world to get where she is which she tries to point out to Zoe in ways to find common ground. The women both stem from the same politically progressive stance, believe they are on the correct side of history yet their color, age difference and life’s experiences – divides them. Zoe is the intelligent young millennial, trying to find herself in the white privileged academic world she is fearful of and wants to see change happen fast for future students of color who she feels should be taught by professors of color and everything should be matched up perfectly. The professor feels much change has happened and that there are ways to go about making change that will last – which ultimately proves untrue as we’re reminded that the more progress we’ve made the times are still about looking back and trying to correct the same mistakes. We still can’t have civil conversations about differing viewpoints without a war breaking out. Division continues to dig deeper.
Zoe surprises the professor – and us – by revealing that she has recorded the entire conversation on her cell phone and uses it as a weapon by sending it out to the world as the professor pleads with her not to. In all sincerity, the writing never gives the professor language that is so bad that it would be interpreted as cruel or crude and felt off or perhaps it was intentional. Eleanor Burgess says in an interview for the Geffen: “The challenge of the play is making it clear that the ideas are personal. The ideas do have stakes. The way Janine thinks America works is central to her sense of self as an immigrant, as a female professor who has worked her way up in a time of great change, as someone who has staked her reputation on understanding how the world works. To be told your understanding of the Constitution is wrong is to be told that what your family believes is wrong. It’s completely personal and it’s the same way for Zoe. She is a talented person who should feel like she’s inheriting the world but she literally doesn’t know where to put herself or who to trust. People’s ideas are the core of who they are. So. if those ideas are suddenly invalidated, it is as though the person it being invalidated.”
In the 2nd act the women meet weeks after their initial office visit after both are damaged by Zoe’s reactions. The power of the internet and the speed to reveal what she perceives as total prosecution has backfired on Zoe. She says she still has some friends but now gets death threats as she eats junk food watching Netflix and can’t go to class let alone do her weekend protests. She’s scared. The professor’s reputation has been damaged beyond repair and she’s been put on leave. As they attempt to discuss the possibility to do damage control by putting out a joint statement to the public, their conversation again escalates. There are points where it’s hard to like the characters or to understand their mindset as they become increasingly more volatile but every argument has an equally good counter-argument.
The two-character play easily compares to David Mamet’s Oleanna – where a professor and his female student clash when she accuses him of sexual exploitation which ruins his chances of being given tenure. As the women get progressively cruder to one another we’re reminded of America’s stain of intolerance. Burgess transcends beyond race and takes us into the desperation that comes with the need to be right and heard in a world that increasingly ceases to listen or learn.
Good writing makes us question, converse, agree, hopefully to disagree and maybe even change a little or at least hold a mirror up and simply ask – which part of me is in all of this? The need to be right at any cost continues and will continue to kill many spirits – no matter who is behind the curtain – in the land – that never had Oz… race, power and history it does.
Burgess has done a damned fine job in covering an old topic anew by keeping her characters human in all that they say and do.
Kudos to Director Kimberly Senior who ensures we’re paying attention to the deeply personal views of these two women with increasing hostility, while leaving us stunned by play’s end.
The question remains, has their debate ruined their lives?
The Geffen Playhouse, Gil Cates Theatre, 10886 Le Conte Avenue, Los Angeles 90024. Tickets run $30-$120.00 Available in person at The Geffen Playhouse box office, by phone at 310.208.5454 or online. Through May 12th.