BWW Review: THE NICETIES - Jarrott Productions at Trinity Street Theatre
Do you remember your American history class? I know I do, I loved history. We were told that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were men of outstanding quality who believed that "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness." What we weren't told was that while writing these words, Thomas Jefferson owned over 600 African-American slaves. In addition, Jefferson had an enslaved mistress, Sally Hemings, with whom he fathered 6 children, who were in turn enslaved. Eleanor Burgess's play THE NICETIES takes on this type of historical discrepancy head on.
The play is set in the office of Janine Bosko (Francesca Christian), an elite university history professor, where she is meeting with student, Zoe Reed (Jacqui Calloway). They begin to discuss a paper Zoe has written for class on the American Revolution. At first Bosko's criticisms are correcting grammatical errors, but moves into a deeper exchange about the thesis of the assignment. Reed is an overachieving student, being one of the few black undergraduates on campus she feels strongly that representation matters. She's no shrinking violet content to sit in class and get her grade, her thesis challenges Bosko's perception and the discussion becomes a power struggle between the truth and the status quo. The central theme is the type of mythical history we have all been spoon fed from our earliest years, namely that Washington and Jefforson created the United States Of America from dust or that it was built on the backs of slavery at a devastating human cost. Zoe's thesis maintains that the American Revolution didn't devolve into a radical revolution, like in France, because the working class was held in bondage. Bosko reels at the very idea that her heroes were flawed and refuses to acknowledge Zoe's argument. Eventually a recording of some of the professors more racist comments is made public and the fallout is poignant. The two characters locked in conflict carry the play through a deep discussion of systemic racism and the failure of academia to evolve into something that represents everyone.
Jarrott Productions continues to produce some of the finest, most thought provoking theatre in Austin and THE NICETIES lives up to that benchmark. Jeremy Rashad Brown's direction is brilliant, giving his actors room to stretch and present their arguments with natural ambiance. Francesca Christian and Jacqui Calloway are perfectly cast as the knowledgeable but stodgy professor and the young firebrand student. Both give Burgess's meaty dialogue force and conviction and put the point of the argument squarely in the lap of the audience. The set design by Michael Krauss is gorgeous. In fact I believe it's the best use of the Trinity Street Theatre's space I have yet to see. His use of color and angle is beautiful and the perfect setting for this jewel. Altogether the production lives up to its promise, to entertain, yes, but also to challenge our perceptions and give us something to think about long after the final bows. Our world is complex and we should never be satisfied with the boundaries set for us by past generations, we should strive to listen to all the evidence to seek the truth. Good theatre gives us a picture, great theatre makes us look closer and want to know more. THE NICETIES is great theatre.
Directed by Jeremy Rashad Brown
Jarrott Productions at Trinity Street Theatre, 901 Trinity Street, Austin
January 16 - February 2
Running Time: 2 hours with one 15 minute intermission
Tickets: $23 - $25 jarrottproductions.com