World Premiere Of THE NICETIES Explores Race, Power In Academia
After developmental productions that drew high praise from prominent theatre critics, and left audiences alternately speechless and effusive, engaged and enraged, the Huntington Theatre Company presents the world premiere of Eleanor Burgess's explosive new play, The Niceties, running August 31 to October 6 at the South End/Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts. The Huntington is pleased to produce the play in association with two other leading theatre companies. The production will move Off Broadway to Manhattan Theatre Club immediately following the Boston run, and then continue on to Princeton, NJ for performances at McCarter Theatre Center.
Directed by Kimberly Senior (Disgraced at LCT3/Lincoln Center and on Broadway), The Niceties is a two-hander about black student Zoe and white professor Janine - both brilliant, both liberal - who meet to discuss Zoe's term paper about the impact of slavery on the American Revolution. Their academic debate about the merit and research of Zoe's work devolves from a war of words, into an incident that foments campus furor, garners national headlines, and threatens to ruin both their lives.
The Brookline-born and Yale-educated Burgess, who is a Huntington Playwriting Fellow, used a 2015 incident at her alma mater as inspiration for this play. That fall, a campus email cautioning students against insensitive Halloween costumes generated a response from a professor who defended the holiday as a time of transgression. The debate sparked weeks of protests and months of scorching discussion. Burgess, who had graduated several years before, says the wildfire of on-campus and online uproar about the incident, and the inability of people on both sides to talk rationally about it, left her to contemplate why things got so out-of-hand, especially among her own diverse array of classmates and friends.
For months I was stuck in an endless succession of unsuccessful conversations about race, over and over and over again," Burgess says. "I was obsessed with why interactions were going so badly between smart and well-intentioned people. It made me evaluate, as an undergraduate history major and former high school history teacher, what I was taught, what I believed, and what I taught to others."
Like the incident that inspired it, the incendiary ramifications of the central incident in The Niceties exposes issues of alternate historical perspectives and the evolving language used to discuss historical injustices. Echoing a theme from the hit musical Hamilton, The Niceties considers who tells Americans' stories and what prejudices the purveyors of history may have held.
The Niceties is set in spring 2016 when the characters in the play are beginning to sense the profound change that would come to the country with the 2016 presidential election. After a workshop at the Contemporary American Theater Festival last year, and a developmental production at Portland Stage in Maine last winter, the play became a hot property among American theatre companies. Its impact crossed over into other institutions as well, Burgess says. After The Washington Post called it "a barnburner of a play," Burgess fielded calls and emails from congresspersons, religious leaders, educators and non-profit organizations across the country.
Burgess chose the Huntington in her hometown for the play's formal debut. (It is being produced in association with - and will be seen next at - New York's Manhattan Theatre Club and the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, NJ.) When she was a student, Burgess says, the Huntington was the place where she saw theatrical performances from her early teens on, and where she caught the theatre bug.
"The Huntington shaped my understanding of theatre," Burgess says. "It has meant so much to me - even when I was too young to imagine I could ever possibly do this. It's the place that gave me my first 'yes' as a professional playwright...the first time a real theatre said, 'we like what you're doing.' That was the kickstart that made me pursue theatre seriously. The fact that I'm part of a Huntington season means more to me than I could ever express."
The Niceties opens the Huntington's 2018-2019 season and runs from August 31 - October 6, 2018 at the Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA. It's the first time the Huntington begins its season at the Calderwood, and Artistic Director Peter DuBois says the intimate Wimberly Theatre is the perfect spot for this intense play.
"Eleanor has created a work that does what the finest, best-written plays do - it demands engagement from an audience and practically compels them to talk about it afterwards," DuBois says. "Seeing this in the Wimberly is going to up the stakes for audiences and actors alike; I expect a crackling energy will be built at every single performance."
ARTISTIC AND PRODUCTION TEAM
Eleanor Burgess (Playwright) is a Huntington Playwriting Fellow. Her work has been produced at Manhattan Theatre Club, McCarter Theatre Center, ALLIANCE THEATRE, Merrimack Repertory Theatre, Contemporary American Theatre Festival, Portland Stage Company, and Centenary Stage, and developed with The New Group, New York Theatre Workshop, Ensemble Studio Theatre, Page 73, The Civilians, Salt Lake Acting Company, the Lark Play Development Center, and the Kennedy Center/NNPN MFA Playwrights Workshop. She grew up in Brookline, Massachusetts, and studied history at Yale College and dramatic writing at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts.
Kimberly Senior (Director) directed the Broadway premiere of Ayad Akhtar's Pulitzer Prize-winning play Disgraced, which she previously directed Off Broadway at Lincoln Center Theater (LCT3) and later at Goodman Theatre, Seattle Repertory Theatre, Berkeley Repertory Theatre, and Mark Taper Forum. Her other Off Broadway credits include Chris Gethard's Career Suicide (produced by Judd Apatow); Discord (Primary Stages); Engagements (Second Stage Theatre), and The Who and the What (Lincoln Center Theater/LCT3). Regional credits include Rapture, Blister, Burn and Support Group for Men (Goodman Theatre); Sheltered (ALLIANCE THEATRE); Other Than Honorable (Geva Theatre Center); Buried Child, The Scene, Marjorie Prime, The Diary of Anne Frank, Hedda Gabler, and The Letters (Writers Theatre, where she is a resident director); Sex with Strangers (Geffen Playhouse); Little Gem (City Theatre); Discord, 4000 Miles, and The Whipping Man (Northlight Theatre); Want and The North Plan (Steppenwolf Theatre Company); Inana, My Name is Asher Lev, All My Sons, and Dolly West's Kitchen (TimeLine Theatre Company, where she is an associate artist); Disgraced (American Theater Company); among others. For television, she directed "Chris Gethard's Career Suicide" (HBO). She was a 2013 finalist for the SDCF Joe A. Callaway Award and the Zelda Fichandler Award. Ms. Senior is the recipient of the 2016 Special Non-Equity Jeff Award, the 2016 Alan Schneider Award (TCG), and the 2018 Einhorn Award (Primary Stages).
The Niceties cast features Jordan Boatman as the student Zoe (Hulu's "The Path," recent graduate of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts), and Lisa Banes as the professor Janine (Present Laughter at the Huntington and on Broadway, Gone Girl, "Royal Pains," and "Once Upon a Time").
The Niceties features scenic design by Cameron Anderson (Becoming Cuba at the Huntington), costume design by Kara Harmon (A Guide for the Homesick at the Huntington), lighting design by D.M. Wood (Lost Laughs: The Slapstick Tragedy of Fatty Arbuckle at Merrimack Repertory Theatre), and sound design and original music by Elisheba Ittoop (West Side Story and Sunday in the Park with George at the Guthrie Theater, The Rembrandt at Steppenwolf). Production stage manager is Emily F. McMullen; stage manager is Sam Layco.
The Huntington's Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA / South End, 527 Tremont St., Boston. Single tickets starting at $25, and FlexPasses are available, online at huntingtontheatre.org, by phone at 617 266 0800, in person at the Huntington Avenue Theatre Box Office, 264 Huntington Ave. and the Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA Box Office, 527 Tremont St. in Boston's South End.
Select discounts apply: $5 off: seniors (65+); $30 "35 Below" tickets for patrons 35 years old and younger (valid ID required); $20 student and military tickets (valid ID required)