The Niceties is a dramatic tennis match of ideas with two characters scoring points in their increasingly intense back-and-forth exchanges.
Janine (Mary Beth Fisher)—a respected history professor teaching an upper-level course on revolutions—begins by offering criticisms to Zoe (Ayanna Bria Bakari) regarding her 20-page thesis essay. The ensuing discussion is fraught with conflicts framed by both race and the generation gap between Baby Boomers and Millennials. Before the play’s start, a Writer’s Theater Associate encouraged the audience to consider both points of view—particularly when we felt a strong allegiance to one character’s perspective. In that spirit, I am going to present my reactions to The Niceties by referencing the more convincing points scores by both Janine and Zoe.
Regarding higher education…
– Janine is correct that Zoe needs to put more time and energy into finding sources to support her arguments.
– Zoe is correct in her criticism of the modern university structure.
Zoe’s thesis attempts to prove that the American Revolution was successful because of slavery. Janine comes around to the originality of Zoe’s thesis but criticizes the references, which are all easily attainable through Google and include no primary sources. Zoe should have accepted Janine’s help in finding better sources, but she believes firmly that her other obligations (like leading protest marches) will better train her for life after college. I do not share the full extent of Zoe’s cynicism toward the value of a liberal arts education, but I do sympathize with her notion that for the cost of a college education (Zoe mentions $64,000 a year), she should have a say in the skills that she refines.
Regarding the study of American democracy…
– Zoe is correct that one must acknowledge the perspectives of those that have been under-served.
– Janine is correct that historical figures should be viewed with consideration of their time period.
Janine advocates that the American style of democracy must be celebrated because of its uniqueness among nations that have overthrown governments. However, Zoe’s counter-argument is convincing: our democracy has served to keep the grip of power in the hands of specific privileged groups. Meanwhile, minority groups have suffered from persecution precisely because they live in a system that prizes majority rule. That being said, Zoe’s viewpoint is that historical figures (George Washington, Sandra Day O’Conner, and Howard Stern are among those discussed) must be assessed through specific modern filters—an idea that goes too far in terms of diminishing any progress that has occurred in America since the Declaration of Independence.
Regarding teacher-student expectations…
– Janine is correct that teaching cannot occur in an environment where every comment is isolated and over-interpreted.
– Zoe is correct that Janine condescends to her students to affirm her authority.
Both of these assertions relate to generational gaps. Zoe supports her claim that Janine is out of touch with her students by telling Janine that she mispronounces some of her students’ names (never mind that those students do not correct her). On the other side, Janine trying to help Zoe with her research by handing her gigantic books that she knows Zoe does not have time to read is partly rooted in Janine’s arrogance toward Millennials. In truth, maybe it is time for both Zoe and Janine to move on to the next phase of their lives in lieu of trying to compromise within a setting that is frustrating to them both.
Most importantly, playwright Eleanor Burgess is correct that neither Janine nor Zoe will “win” if they are tried in the court of public opinion. I will not spoil what happens at the end of Act 1 or in Act II. Suffice to say, The Niceties is never a passive experience for the audience. Instead, Burgess makes her stage a medium for emotional discussions that will hopefully continue long after the play’s end.