Racism isn’t always a clear, conscious choice but activism and outrage regarding racism are choices in playwright Eleanor Burgess’ “The Niceties,” now at Writers Theatre.
When a well-regarded Caucasian Ivy-league history professor meets one of her students, a smart African-American anxious to turn in her paper on the American Revolution ahead of time so she can organize a protest at the school, their discussion dissolves from quiet, academic points to heated confrontation.
Zoe, a junior who prefers the internet for doing research, contends that the American Revolution’s successes were related to slavery. Her professor, Janine, asks her not to base her arguments on what appear to be assumptions but to look for annotated facts from well-regarded authorities.
Janine is willing to extend the paper’s deadline but Zoe replies it won’t help because she has a protest to organize followed by other protests elsewhere.
That’s the early part of what starts out as back and forth conversation.
It soon becomes a heated argument when Zoe reads quotes from what Janine said in class that could be considered racist, argues against the professor’s hanging of a George Washington picture even though Janine also has a picture of Nelson Mandela on the wall and then records Janine’s responses on a cell phone she sends into the public domain.
Directed by Marti Lyons, Ayanna Bria Bakari is totally believable as Zoe and Maryh Beth Fisher is perfect as Janine.
An insert in the program urges audiences to not take sides as they hear the arguments. It says, There are no heroes and no villains in this play. “The insert goes on to read, “Both characters say many things that are true and both say many things that are deeply troubling and uncomfortable to hear.”
During the performance I attended, there were gasps when Zoe was rude to the professor and later showed the cell phone.
The audience also listened in rapt silence when aa distraught Zoe explained what life is like for someone who is African-American and that white people, like the professor, should “shut up and listen.”
Premiered in 2018, the arguments in this new play are provocative, personal and are likely to be discussed by audiences long after they leave the theater.
DETAILS: “The Niceties” is at Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe, through Dec. 8, 2019. Running time: about 1 hour, 50 minutes. For tickets and other information call (847) 242-6000 or visit Writers Theatre.
For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago