“The Niceties” is the latest play at the Geffen Playhouse to tackle race and society.
If there was ever a piece of theatre that depicts racial divide, the inability to deal with history, and the refusal of people to cut through their own perception, it is “The Niceties.” Running at the Geffen Playhouse until May 12, the play follows an ongoing debate between a young, Black college student and her older, White professor.
Zoe is a bright student at an elite, Ivy League university. Her professor, Janine Bosko, is a woman’s rights activist who was one of the first women students to attend that same university. They have a mutual respect for each other’s intelligence, that is until Zoe takes Janine’s course on historic revolutions. Throughout the play, the two characters clash on issues of race, age, and their ideas on what is appropriate in academia.
“In the beginning Zoe really admires Janine. She is this great professor, and everyone really wants to take her class. We’ve all been in that place where you’re stuck between having an argument with someone you admire, not wanting to step on their toes but wanting to defend what you believe in” said Jordan Boatman, who plays Zoe in “The Niceties.” “The play is beautifully written and timely. We are talking about things that are going on today. The characters have a conversation that we should all be having that opens the door.”
As a proud, Black woman and activist for the Black community, Zoe takes a stand when writing her paper on the American Revolution. Janine has a great deal of respect for the founding fathers and credits them for having one of the greatest revolutions where the country was able to sustain and rise. To Janine’s dismay, Zoe focusses her essay on slavery’s impact on the rise of the United States and how Black people felt during the American Revolution. As the two have had great discourse before, Zoe goes to Janine’s office hours to get advice on her paper. Janine, however, does not respect Zoe’s research or sources.
Along with racial differences, there is an age difference. When it comes to credible sources, Janine doesn’t value information from the internet. She believes that all information used in a paper should be from a book or recording. The two also have disagreements on the proper way to incite change. Janine has a calculated approach of working within the system while Zoe has a more millennial approach of putting the system on blast through social media and public demonstrations.
“It tells a lot about the reality that a lot of Black students face in college. The professor is sometimes naïve and that’s based on their conditioning and how they grew up. They want to help, but don’t use the right tools to help,” said Prince Gumbi, a Pan African Studies student at California State University Los Angeles. “In the beginning, I was thinking, ‘Why is this show not taking a stand?’ Now I realize that that was not the point.”
“The Niceties” takes place in Janine’s office the entire time with the two characters going back and forth, neither one budging. There were mixed reviews that were racially divided from audience members on that aspect during opening night. While many White audience members said that it was insightful hearing both characters’ points of view, Black audience members were upset that the professor would not budge.
The one thing that audience members could agree on, however, was the power of the play. Both actors showed passion and depicted emotions that were telling and true to life. The playwright, Eleanor Burgess, was inspired to write “The Niceties” after her experiences of racial tensions at Yale University in 2015, when students of color wanted the university to put a ban on blackface and culturally offensive Halloween costumes. This play is not a racial fairy tale, but more of a raw image of the struggle between people of color and institutions.
“The Niceties” will run at the Geffen Playhouse until May 12. For information on tickets, visit www.geffenplayhouse.org.