BWW Review: A Clash of Perfectly Opposed Titans in THE NICETIES at CATF
Every so often a play turns up that so challenges a critic's premises that it is hard to come to grips with it objectively. Eleanor Burgess' The Niceties, or at least a character in it who may well be speaking for the author, vehemently questions the authority of those who were trained in elite institutions of higher education and became beneficiaries of generations of white privilege to say anything about race. Among those whose entitlement to speak Burgess challenges are critics like me.
But even if I feel targeted, I still must respond to The Niceties as a play, using a critic's tools, and must and shall leave my reactions to the work as a polemic for some other time and place.
So let me start with what is usually the easiest part for a critic - and certainly is here. I can surely say that I was thrilled by The Niceties, now having its world premiere at the Contemporary American Theater Festival at Shepherdstown, WV. A two-fisted drama of ideas, it may well leave you devastated, and will certainly send you out talking. It isn't perfect, as I'll discuss, but it will keep you thinking and probably angry, regardless of where you come down on the issues very articulately debated in it. To talk about the play, one must first describe it as one would a debate, summarizing the parties' positions.
The disputants are Janine (Robin Walsh), a white history professor at an unidentified institution of higher learning that is transparently Yale, and Zoe (Margaret Ivey), an African American student. They differ, politely at first, over a class paper Zoe is writing for Janine. Zoe's thesis is that the American Revolution was a moderate one not because of the statesmanship of the Founding Fathers but because those who waged it had no desire to right the wrong of slavery and fix the fundamental problems of American society.
Janine demurs. She argues that historians must work with the primary data available, and that everything not found in such data must be ignored. Because nothing that might support Zoe's conclusions stands out in the primary data, she reasons, there is no good reason to subscribe to Zoe's conclusions. Walsh's delivery of Janine's lines at this point comes across as measured, rational, and supremely composed. Zoe's initial riposte, almost as measured, is that this neat construct consigns us to relying entirely on the voices of white men, history's winners, who had a nearly exclusive ability to create the record and were unreliable narrators. To Zoe, Janine's utter dismissal of her theory ignores self-evident truths of human nature, which should be evidence enough.
As the discussion grows more heated, leading to a crisis that leaks out of the professor's office, it becomes both a proxy for and a microcosm of the larger disputes around race in our country. In the second act (I almost wrote "the second round") Zoe accuses Janine of not being a suitable teacher. When Janine responds she earned her position, Zoe reminds Janine of all the reasons certain potential competitors may have fallen by the wayside on the way to earning that position: "[F]irst came 250 years of slavery, and then came a hundred years of segregation, and then came a deliberate and systematic attempt to exclude black people from good school districts and good jobs and to lock them up or hunt them down for doing things white people do every day. I need you to say that whatever else it stands for, America has systematically persecuted one part of its population, in a way that benefits the other part. In a way that has benefited you... You won fair and square cuz everyone else had lead boots on."
The fight culminates with Zoe demanding that Janine make personal reparations for the illegitimate benefit she has received. With the positions of the parties so lucidly laid out, this rather shocking demand seems - less so. Whether it is convincing or acceptable may well depend on who you are.
The unwritten rules of the game for shows that are truly duels of ideas generally provide that each side will get enough good lines so that the spectator can reasonably come out agreeing with either. The dispute in Freud's Last Session, for instance, could be called for either Sigmund Freud or C.S. Lewis. Burgess opts for the path less traveled and shows one of the women as the clear winner. Thus this ends up being more like the dispute in A Man for All Seasons between Thomas More and all the interlocutors More bests.
Because the playwright's designation of a victor occurs within and because of what the characters say, there is no need to do it any other way. Nonetheless, Burgess puts her thumb on the scale, and has the losing party also act corruptly at two or three points. It seems inconsistent with this party's character everywhere else in the play, and it is the imperfection I mentioned before. It would be better, I believe, if the winner had emerged on her own terms from the clash of views and identities, making this a contest of admirable people fated by skin color and history alone to be adversaries.
This speed bump, happily, about the only imperfection in the show. Not being a historian, I have no idea how accurate the play is as to the status of the scholarly opinion about our Revolution, or whether Zoe's views are so much out of the mainstream, but the talk sounds right. What makes the achievement of this sound particularly remarkable here is that Robin Walsh, whom CATF audiences know from the memorable production of Johnna Adams' Gidion's Knot five years ago, was brought in just in the last few days when the original Janine took ill, and performed with very little rehearsal or opportunity to learn her lines. In the performance I saw, she still had a script in front of her that she was using for prompts, but she covered for it beautifully, by giving her character a slight stammer which allowed her to dart glances downwards as needed. That same stammer also conveyed the meticulous care with which Janine crafts every armor-plated, nuance-laden sentence. I'm guessing that if Walsh goes on with the part long enough to be letter perfect with her lines, the stammer will stay.
And Margaret Ivey, seen to advantage in two CATF productions last season, delivers Zoe to us as a worthy foil for Janine. It might be a temptation for a less skilled performer to allow Zoe to get hot under the collar prematurely or too thoroughly. This Zoe keeps her powder dry until she sees the whites of Janine's eyes. When Zoe finally does explode, she only grows more intelligent and telling in what she says, and still you sense that the character is holding something back. Ivey is, in short, expert at conveying rage behind a somewhat bluff exterior.
When these two get together, therefore, it is a clash of perfectly opposed titans. First Janine can deliver escalating provocation in a carefully modulated tone, and Zoe can respond with carefully modulated frustration, then Zoe can rain down well-considered condemnation which Janine can parry with sincere-sounding sophistication. It's a great match of parts and performers.
As to Zoe's ultimate challenge to any beneficiary of white privilege, as I have said, I shall not opine. But - fair warning - forcing each viewer to confront that question is the point of the exercise. If you see this show, when you leave, you will be thinking about that challenge.
The Niceties, by Eleanor Burgess, directed by Kimberly Senior, presented by the Contemporary American Theater Festival through July 30 at Studio 112, 92 W. University Drive, Shepherdstown, WV. Tickets $35-$65, http://catf.org/tickets/, 800.999.CATF or 304.876.3473. Adult language, mild physical confrontation.
Photo credit: Seth Freeman.