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Revealing America: Eleanor Burgess' The Niceties

JANINE: You may be right. You’re probably right.About feelings that were there. It’s possible you’re rightabout the effects those feelings had. But that isn’t history.

ZOE: Yes, it is history. It’s a part of American history.

In playwright Eleanor Burgess’ The Niceties, a student sits down with her professor during office hours; their lives are about to change. Through their intense conversation, Burgess brings intellectual might and refreshing nuance to discussing race, history, and power in America. The play has become a breakout hit for Burgess, a Brookline native and alumna of the Huntington Playwriting Fellows program. Critic Peter Marks of The Washington Post named a developmental staging as one of his favorite productions of 2017, describing The Niceties as “a nail-biter of a play that leaves you wrung out and reassessing your own pieties.”

In the play, Zoe is a junior at an “elite university in the Northeast”with a high GPA and a focus on social activism. She is meeting to discuss her research paper with Janine, a published expert in comparative revolutionary history. They geek out about grammar and style, but soon a disagreement is sparked. “Zoe’s thesis is that the American Revolution could never have been a successfu lrevolution without — and was the most successful revolution in history because of — the institution of slavery,” playwright Eleanor Burgess says. “Janine does not agree.”

Zoe is black, and Janine is white; from different generations, they are both part of the well-educated elite, and consider themselves left-wing politically. Initially, Janine is receptive and even encouraging toward Zoe’s resistance to change her thesis.“So many of your classmates, […] they’re so eager to do what I tell them,” Janine says to Zoe. “When what I want, of course, is debate.” But what begins as a conversation about 18th century history has implications for our 21st century moment, and those differences of opinion reveal an essential gap; ultimately their conversation — fast-paced, clever, intellectually dazzling —concerns the foundational question of who controls the story of America and who will control its future.

Burgess started the play out of an interest in how a seemingly straightforward disagreement can blow up to the proportions of a cultural divide. One example of this phenomenon for Burgess was a 2015 controversy at Yale: child development professor Erika Christakis objected to a campus advisory that pre-emptively discouraged Halloween costumes that borrowed from other cultures. Christakis felt that the function of college was trying out adult responsibilities, and opined in an email that Halloween was a time when students could be allowed to be “a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive.” The email went viral.The response from students was that her point of view reinforced white supremacist notions that other cultures can be appropriated freely, and that her comments contributed to a hostile learning environment; students led protests and called for Christakis’immediate dismissal and disavowal.

What interested Burgess was that, when discussing the incident with friends, both sides dismissed any legitimacy to the opposing argument.“My friends are really spread across a pretty broad political spectrum, from quite conservative to quite liberal,” Burgess explains. “Both groups believed that the other side was not fighting for anything valid. No one wanted to explore that both academic freedom of speech and the psychological safety of students of color were important, or acknowledge that the disagreement was difficult but necessary. That was too complicated. No one wanted to have a discussion.”

For Burgess and director Kimberly Senior, the play is both an exorcism for the entrenched polarization that has gripped America and an attempt to ask whether we can find a way forward. In Senior’s words, “The debate in this play is one that threatens to rip apart the gorgeous fabric of our country — that disparate voices and opinions and religions and races and genders and beliefs could all possibly share this country, and find empathy, goodness at our core. Will our play solve these problems? Likely not. But it is a prescient warning bell. It is a rallying cry that we must find a way to reach across the aisle, bridge the divide, and find a way to be good neighbors — and maybe, just maybe, we will do a little better next time we are facing someone we might consider an opponent.”

– CHARLES HAUGLAND


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