BWW Review: THE NICETIES at Geva Theatre Center
For thousands of years the theatre has been a place where storytellers go to evaluate the world around them and the people who inhabit it. Every period in history, every noteworthy event, near every moment of import has theatrical representation in one form or another, from Jesus to the Salem Witch Trials, the Nixon impeachment to the smartphone. The polarized and divisive times in which we're all currently living have been no exception, with playwrights and artists of all stripes stepping up and trying to make sense of the calamity of our politics and culture. "The Niceties", currently playing at Geva Theatre Center, takes a sharp and assertive stance on the issues of race and class that have become a powder keg since 2016 (and long before), in one of the most searing and provocative commentaries written in recent years.
"The Niceties", by Eleanor Burgess, tells the story of Zoe Reed (Cindy De La Cruz), a black college junior who visits her American History Professor (Janine Bosko, played by Jordan Baker) during office hours to get some assistance on a recently submitted term paper. What begins as routine feedback regarding grammar and Google citations quickly devolves into an explosive debate about race, class, privilege, "woke-ness", cancel culture, activism, generational divides, and historical whitewashing in academia. When the stakes of the debate get ratcheted up at the end of act I, both Zoe and Janine (the show's only characters) become wounded and vulnerable, leaving the audience to wonder if they'll be able to find any semblance of common ground.
What makes "The Niceties" so engrossing and such a well-crafted piece of theatre is that it's both sharply opinionated and empathetic to both points of view. Zoe is young and passionate, an articulate and fierce fighter for the causes she believes in; most notably, the fact that college curriculums (Bosko's in particular) completely trivialize--and often remove altogether--the role of slaves and how they affected the outcome of events like the American Revolution. Professor Bosko is a second-wave feminist in her early 60's, an aged hippie and progressive in her own right but, still, completely exhausted over the younger generation's obsession with safe spaces, trigger warnings, and political correctness.
So basically, the human embodiment of a Facebook comment thread.
And yet Burgess gives daylight to each side, showing that both Zoe and Janine's opinions and lived experiences are valid, and that if they could just find a productive way to talk to each other they'd realize that they agree on more than they disagree. Zoe, Burgess makes quite clear, is unequivocally correct that history books have downplayed, belittled, and removed the role of African Americans in the shaping of our great nation, a reality that majorly contributes to the systemic racism plaguing our society to this day. But she also makes clear that the incremental, coalition-building, slow-but-steady way of making progress that Bosko prefers has, perhaps, a better track record, and that passion often doesn't translate to results. As one of the audience members sitting near me said as the lights came up at intermission, "they're both right AND they're both wrong."
Both Baker and De La Cruz give energetic, invigorating performances in this fast-paced and high-octane play, sharing a magnetic chemistry that comes from their command of the stage and their craft. While the play is set in the professor's sprawling office (created to perfection by scenic designer Mariana Sanchez) it could just as easily be showcased in an empty room, because the show is carried by the conviction and power that these two women bring to the stage.
"The Niceties" is brilliantly thought-provoking and will surely have you thinking and analyzing for weeks to come; I sure have been. It's playing at Geva Theatre until November 17th, for tickets and more information click here.