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BWW Review: THE NICETIES at The Conciliation Lab


Conflict on campus

BWW Review: THE NICETIES at The Conciliation Lab The Conciliation Lab has chosen well for its season opener. "The Niceties" is Eleanor Burgess's 2018 drama about a conflict between two women on a college campus. History professor Janine Bosko (played by Debra Clinton), who is white, is advising undergraduate Zoe Reed (played by Mikayla LaShae Bartholomew), who is Black, on a paper Zoe plans to submit. Zoe's thesis: The American revolution could succeed only because of the existence of slavery.

The audience is in for an angry debate, not just about the academic merit of this assertion, but also about the impact of America's willful blindness to the impact of its everyday racism.

Burgess sets the action in 2016, during the presidential campaign, and that's a key to the way things unfold--the campus a little less racially aware, perhaps, than it might be today, and the divisions among good liberals less clear than they became after the Republican win.

Janine starts the session by dishing out grammatical corrections to Zoe, whose patience is already a little thin. We can see from the start that Janine is a longtime academic, used to the unquestioning attention of her students--and at the same time, we get that she may be overestimating the esteem her students have for her. Matters quickly escalate when Janine dismisses Zoe's position, and Zoe argues back strongly--she's thoughtful, she's come up with a provocative insight, she can hold her own.

But Janine is written as an unworthy opponent for Zoe. Through her own words and behavior she reveals herself as priggish, resistant to change, judgmental. She shows other aspects of herself, too--there's an immigrant backstory, there were barriers to success in the academy, and there is an oppressed-group membership of her own. But in this production, director Tawnya Pettiford-Wates and actor Clinton lean into an almost cartoonish portrayal of the woman, with her insensitive speech and fidgety body language. She has a bad back, and she wears a constricting lumbar support belt that underscores just how tightly wound she is. We watch Janine's behavior deteriorate as her desperation escalates.

By contrast, Bartholomew's performance is natural, subtle, showing physically and facially the many hits Zoe takes from Janine. You can see physically how each microaggression lands. Bartholomew modulates Zoe's anger as it grows.

The ideas examined are sharp, sometimes lacerating, and worthy of thought; they fly fast and certainly furiously. It's a breathtaking exchange to observe.

Faith Carlson's set design reveals Janine's character from the get-go, with fussy tea tables and fusty set decoration. Amber Martinez's costumes do so as well, from Janine's conservative print blouse to Zoe's neon head wrap. Austin Harber's lighting works subtly, and Kelsey Cordrey's sound design signals the harshness of the conflict.

Burgess lays out her arguments starkly and brings the audience along for every turn of the conflict. It's challenging; it demands attention and soul-searching. "The Niceties" isn't nice, but it must be seen.

"The Niceties"

At: The Basement, 300 E. Broad St.

Through: October 16

Tickets: $30, with discounts for seniors, students, teachers, RVATA members

Info: or (804) 506-3533

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From This Author Susan Haubenstock