Nicety: a fine detail or distinction or a minor aspect of social behavior. Eleanor Burgess picks at a small detail within a college paper and unearths something larger in The Geffen Playhouse's "The Niceties."
A young black female student named Zoe Reed (Jordan Boatman) goes to her U.S. history professor for office hours to go over her essay about how the American Revolution would be impossible without slavery. Janine Bosko (Lisa Banes), her older white female professor doesn't have the same belief in the importance of African American people on American history. Janine begins with small editing notes but then begins to question Zoe's entire thesis. Zoe eventually fights back, and it becomes clear which side of the American Revolution each character is on and echoes a similar separation in the U.S. during the 2016 presidential elections.
Boatman begins awkwardly shuffling from one side of the room to the other. Her movement initially felt lazy and confused, but after grasping onto her stance in the argument, it is clear it was just her uncomfortable nature while being talked to by her white professor. Janine utilizes every microaggression that invalidates Zoe; the 'niceties' of the play.
The show not only highlights the contrast in characters but it also publicly announces problems within American education, particularly the dominance of white perspectives. It is made clear from the first comment that Janine makes when she asks Zoe if she'd love being in the room where it happened with George Washington, one of the first historical figures students learn in elementary school. Zoe simply replies "no" because of the reality of the founding fathers' racism and active participation in slavery. For students of color, American history isn't as exciting to dwell in when their ancestors were dehumanized.
Zoe finally takes over the stage and demands respect from Janine. In a moment of semi-audience address, she explains that being a student of color means going the extra mile. Students of color can't just be a student because there are social pressures that persist. More specifically, Zoe demands for the "white boy treatment." "Niceties" proves that teachers should aim to learn in the classroom just as much as the students, and it begins with respecting the perspectives of their students. When Zoe realizes her own perspective is not being heard, she amplifies the conversation to social media and the traditional power structure of teacher-student is dismantled.
Kimberly Senior's direction displays this power shift clearly and poignantly with only two actors on stage. Movement highlights how it flows from Janine to Zoe when Zoe gains more confidence and a strong stance by the end of act one. Meanwhile, Janine ends act one shivering in fear. The use of the professor's desk is even utilized by the actors to show how comfort in the office portrays status. When Zoe feels more comfortable in the office and with her voice, she sits behind the desk and critiques Janine's views. Senior's use of space in a small office, designed by Cameron Anderson, gives arc to an argument. Anderson's geometric design supplies a spliced view of the office that places one in the middle of the action. The office is cut diagonally with a single window in the back, which wittingly displays the sun setting over time as shown through D.M. Wood's lighting design.
It is easy to get lost in the growing argument, so much so that the energy reaches a plateau at times. Boatman and Banes begin to follow the same musicality in their voice, which distracts from Burgess's words. However, when the heart and variety are behind the words, the performance is eye-opening and each word digs deeper and stronger into the viewers.
Through the perspective of a black student in a predominately white institution, the deconstructed stage becomes a deconstructed argument. In a constant struggle to be heard, Zoe fights for the unspoken perspectives of the American Revolution and of students of color to be heard. Even if Janine doesn't hear it, the audience does.
“Niceties” runs now through May 12th at The Geffen Playhouse. Tickets start at $30 and can be purchased here.