Theater Review: “The Niceties” — The Gloves Are Off

Eleanor Burgess’ The Niceties is an articulate, if structurally crabbed, expression of #blacklivesmatter anger as well as a millennial rebel yell.

The Niceties by Eleanor Burgess. Directed by Kimberly Senior. Staged by the Huntington Theatre Company at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, through October 6.

Lisa Banes and Jordan Boatman in the Huntington Theatre Company production of “The Niceties.” Photo: T. Charles Erickson.

By Bill Marx

Frankly, whenever a theater company advertises that its upcoming production will be “A Power Keg of History, Race & Power” I assume a damp squib will land in my lap. Too often an alleged ‘explosive’ drama about race and white dominance — ballyhooed by critics who panic at the pop of a theatrical firecracker — turns out to be yet another update of To Kill a Mockingbird, an earnest exercise in doling out empathy to the marginalized, along with de rigueur testaments to the oh-so civilized role played by our institutions and deep-pocketed corporations, which, besides helping to fund our theaters, are enlightened enough to save us from extremism on both sides.

Eleanor Burgess’ The Niceties is something different, an articulate, if structurally crabbed, expression of #blacklivesmatter anger as well as a millennial rebel yell, a political play that doesn’t pay lip service to questioning authority and privilege — it goes right at their arrogance. The script is not the “barnburner” proclaimed by the Washington Post stage critic, but neither is this the usual brush fire designed to leave audiences feeling reassured after the flames have been doused with a liberal bucket of water. In this play we have signs of ignition, a combustibility that comes when a play dares to tackle clashing, painful, and intractable issues of justice and responsibility. May Burgess’ sparks inspire a bonfire of dramas that go beyond the antiseptic.

I only have two dramas to go on, so this could be shaky analysis, but a new archetype may be arriving on the American stage — the African-American woman as Avenging Angel of History, speaking truth to well-off white liberals who believe they are ‘woke,’ but remain asleep to their continuing complicity with racial and economic injustice. Earlier this year, Arts Emerson and the American Repertory Theater produced Claudia Rankine’s The White Card, which gave us a black female artist spurning a prestigious commission from ultra-rich New Yorkers: the fiery glare of her integrity turned the script’s neurotic white bread types into toasty flakes. The limits (political and dramatic) of that cartoon set-up are obvious: if only doing in the status quo was that easy. James Baldwin aptly noted how whites’ racism, “invented in order to safeguard their purity, has made of them criminals and monsters, and it is destroying them.” How might a dramatist convey that monstrousness decay? How to examine, on stage, the ways the current system safeguards perfidy? Also, can fighting systemic racism turn blacks into monsters as well?

Burgess tackles the first two questions, dramatizing a blunt stand-off (circa 2016) between black experience and advantaged white pieties. An African-American woman, a student at an elite East Coast university, takes on a white professor’s delusions of grandeur. In the teacher’s office, Zoe argues, fervently, for her paper’s thesis: the success of the American Revolution depended on the fact that slavery was never seriously challenged. At first, Janine, the 60s-ish female professor, appreciates the woman’s radicalism but, as their conversation jumps dangerously about, she becomes increasingly defensive and then demeaning. Her solid reasons for rejecting the claim (lack of primary evidence, the value of establishing the first democracy at any cost, the importance of Occam’s Razor, etc) give way to something else. Zoe begins to tape the conversation on her iPhone — and hits ‘send.’ Public controversy erupts, and the university takes action against Janine.

Some have compared The Niceties to David Mamet’s Oleanna, but that mediocre drama cheats on several levels. The discussion between the male teacher and the female student has nothing to do with ideas, and the woman’s accusations of sexual harassment follow a cheap personality change between acts one and two. The piece is an early sign of Mamet’s pathetic slide to the far right; his female turns into a Maoist feminist in order to make the patriarchy sympathetic. In contrast, Burgess’ Zoe is consistent and unrelenting — she has some moments of insecurity, but she presses her arguable but powerful points forward with strength. And she never accepts Janine’s invitations to cast their differences aside for the sake of empathy. It is Janine who crumples under the pressure, slipping and sliding from a respected advocate for the traditional study of history to insults, kowtowing, and scheming to save her career.

Burgess gives Zoe the best and most passionate lines, and that weakens the stand-off. George Bernard Shaw argues that both sides of a stage conflict be given equal weight (always give your villains the best lines). This sense of inequality raises another of the script’s limitations. “I think of theatre as a bit like a grown-up version of a really great classroom …, ” Burgess says in the Huntington Theatre Company program. Sometimes The Niceties feels like a discussion in which boxes are being dutifully ticked off, the points ping-ponging back and forth with smooth regularity. The script comes off as more of a calculated debate than a vibrant confrontation. Still, the HTC staging provides plenty of visceral moments. Jordan Boatman’s Zoe strikes some convincingly strident postures (a black Antigone) and Lisa Banes is agile as Janine, though the actress has a tendency to underline the character’s emotions so we can see that the figure is being condescending at one moment, frightened the next, then conniving, etc.

In the second act Zoe returns, at Janine’s request, to come up with some sort of mutual face-saving statement. This is Round 2, and it shows that the argument is no longer about the nature of revolution (if it ever was) or insensitive behavior to Others in the classroom: it is about the poisoned effectiveness of compromise. And saving jobs as well. This is a valuable confrontation, though it is my hunch is that the dramatic redux partly comes about because of the economics of the American theater. Keeping the script a two-hander means that budget-strapped companies — apprehensive about producing straight plays — will be able to stage it. More roles would raise the cost.

For me, Burgess could use more characters in the second act. Why not go up the food chain and have Zoe and Janine argue their cases in front of administrators? (The fastest growing segment of academe.) How do those in charge deal with this crisis? What does it reveal about their motives, strategies, and cowardice? In a sense, The Niceties is already a touch dated. Elite universities around the country are rapidly making changes — some real, many cosmetic — to stave off the kind of hot button confrontations (which alienate wealthy donors and alumni) that inspired this play. “Diversity sensitivity’ has become a  buzzword. But many critics argue that what appears to be reform is, in fact, more about containment and control than genuine transformation. We need dramatists to explore this dilemma, to step fearlessly into the pampered echelons of institutional power. Admirably, Burgess has brought theater into the political/ cultural ring — now she and other talented dramatists like her need to move onto examining who is paying for it.

Also from The Arts Fuse: Another view on the political limitations of The Niceties.

Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.


  1. Gerald Peary on September 19, 2018 at 6:09 pm

    Is it relevant to your discussion that the playwright is white? I love the play. And for the question of cultural appropriation: I applaud Burgess for writing her African-American character so plausibly, empathetically, effectively. Another issue you didn’t mention: the white professor reveals in act two that she is a lesbian, implying that she has had an equivalent suffering to the African-American student,\; and besides, the African-American student is from a financially stable family and is going to a hotshot university. So why the anger? Fortunately, the playwright doesn’t seem to buy the white professor’s arguments.

    • Bill Marx on September 20, 2018 at 12:01 am

      It is of interest but not all that relevant that the playwright is white. I agree with you entirely that Burgess has created a convincing black character. Genuine imagination overcomes charges of ‘cultural appropriation” every time. As for the white professor being a lesbian — I suggest in the review that Zoe will not be put off by invitations of “empathy.” I didn’t want to provide any ‘spoilers.’

      I don’t love the play, but I think it is a good one — the development of its conflicts held back partly, as I argue in the review, by being chained to the limitations of the two-hander.

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