In Eleanor Burgess’s play, The Niceties (now onstage at Urbanite Theatre), we meet a young, African-American college student named Zoe (Bonita Jackson) and an older, white professor named Janine (Kate Young) as they’re having a polite, cordial conversation about Zoe’s paper, written for the prof’s class about revolution. The niceties, though, as we know, can’t last long, or there’d be no play.
While it may seem that the two women should relate to one another—both having overcome some issues in their lives to get where they are—in reality the generational, cultural and, especially, racial divides between them are far wider, and more havoc-producing, than they or we at first realize. At this elite liberal arts college, in this book-lined office where a portrait of George Washington hangs prominently on the wall, their discussion may begin with commas and comments on the right turn of a phrase. But it soon escalates into arguments going back to the roots of America’s democracy and the long-term effects of slavery, and, inevitably in this academic setting, leads to the possibility of the student dropping out or the professor losing her tenure.
Those familiar with David Mamet’s 1992 play Oleanna may hear some echoes in Burgess’ play. In Oleanna, the young female student is confronting a male professor, and the possible career-ending issue is one of sexual harassment, not racism. The discussion in Burgess’ work also takes place in a different political background, since The Niceties is set in 2016, at the end of Barack Obama’s terms as president and in the thick of a campaign that could end with the country’s first female president.
Under the taut direction of Natalie Novacek, the tensions are palpable as Zoe—a millennial radical whose deepest passion is protest—faces off with Janine, who’s had her own struggles to be accepted and yet can come off as smug and just not woke when responding to Zoe’s heartfelt rants about what it’s like to be black, every day, with all the fears and concerns that brings in our society.
Their ping-pong battle back and forth in the first act, as they argue about Zoe’s thesis that the system of slavery played a key role in the success of the American Revolution, is convincing, with each actress giving as good as they get. Burgess, who studied history at Yale, knows the academic world well and marshals compelling details on each side.
Act II, though, is weaker and loses some of the steam built up with the Act I conclusion. In the aftermath of their confrontation, we have time to ponder some of the more implausible aspects of The Niceties, and their dialogue tends to feel reheated.
But Jackson (an FSU/Asolo Conservatory student) and Young are on the money with their strong performances. And The Niceties may stir some interesting post-show discussions for serious theatergoers.
The Niceties continues through June 30. For tickets, call 321-1397 or go to urbanitetheatre.com.