THE Niceties, written by American playwright Eleanor Burgess, is a play that comes to the boil like a raging kettle, takes a rest – and then furiously boils away again.
It’s a play of our time, sometimes uncomfortable on the ear, and leaves most viewers questioning themselves and their long-held beliefs. In a nutshell: are many of us, especially of an older generation, more ‘institutionalised’ than we think we are? Unknowingly prejudiced and rather more closed than open minded because of the version of ‘history’ drilled into us at school and further education – history based on records left by the victors rather than those oppressed, squashed or marginalised (who were usually in no position to leave records of their own).
The play, a verbal sparring bout, sets Janine (Janie Dee) against Zoe (Moronke Akinola, making an impressive professional debut). The backdrop is an elite university somewhere in the American North East. The time is spring 2016, the last year of President Obama’s term. The whiff of Trump is in the air.
Janine is a white history professor – and a successful one at that. Zoe is a 20-year-old black student brimming with attitude. They meet in Janine’s office, crammed with books and a picture of George Washington hanging proudly from the wall.
It all starts rather gently as Zoe is given feedback on the essay she has presented to Janine – a piece of work that argues America never experienced a radical revolution (like other countries) because the oppressed (black slaves) were voiceless.
To begin with, the professor’s criticism is mild – grammatical errors (we all make them). But she then demands a substantial ‘rewrite’. Janine asks Zoe to provide documentary evidence for her thesis.
The demand results in all hell breaking out (the kettle boils like crazy). Janine is accused of racism, secret recordings of their conversation are made (and published) while Zoe gets out her secret little book on Janine, proving she has been suspicious of the professor’s work for a while. ‘I’m not a racist,’ bellows Janine, but the damage has been done. Although the tables are turned – with Zoe making all the demands – the consequences of their feud are not good for either party.
Other issues are thrown into the kettle’s water – among them Janine’s sexuality and Zoe’s mental history. But they seem distractions. The Niceties is an uncompromising – and raging – clash between two individuals from different generations. One steeped in academia, convinced their teachings are ‘true’ and fair. The other determined that a biased history is now rewritten.
A tough play, directed by Matthew Iliffe, that contains a strong message. Brave and thought-provoking. Intense, a tad too long, but worth experiencing.
Title photo by Ali Wright