At the Writers (Nichols) Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Glencoe – “The Niceties” at the Writers Theatre has only two characters and a single set and runs a concise 90 minutes plus one intermission. It’s a play primarily about race, perceptions of American history, the generation gap and it is a scorcher.
Playwright Eleanor Burgess sets her drama in the office of Janine Bosco, an established 60-something American history professor at an elite American university, like Yale. The time is 2016, toward the end of the Barak Obama presidency.
At the beginning of the play, the professor is going over a term paper with a 20-year old student named Zoe. Bosco is white and Zoe is black. The meeting between teacher and student starts uneventfully, with Bosco nitpicking some stylistic points in Zoe’s paper. But the crux of Bosco’s concern is the theme of the paper, Zoe contends that American democracy was built on slavery and black Americans have been oppressed by the white American establishment for centuries.
Bosco states that Zoe’s premise isn’t consistent with historical fact. Bosco takes the academic view, stating that historians need to build their cases through research into verifiable evidence like surviving documents, diaries, and letters. Zoe responds that poor blacks could not leave written records for scholars to pour over in writing their histories. The white side owns the hard evidence and little survives to tell the black side of this nation’s history. The black version of American history has to rely on feelings and empathy with the black past.
The meeting between Bosco and Zoe escalates into fierce debate, the professor conceding that racism is an unfortunate part of American history but things are getting better. In Zoe’s view, things are not getting better and the time is long overdue for white America to yield political and economic power to 20 percent of the country that is black. Zoe states that black Americans have been under the white American thumb for more than four centuries and black Americans need to refuse to accept gradualism from white society in improving their lives.
The debate between the two women goes back and forth almost nonstop, with each woman staking out literate and convincing positions. Audience members who have strong opinions supporting either side will be forced to recognize that the other side’s arguments are cogent, even though they conflict. The arguments are intensified by the generation separation as represented by the senior citizen Bosco and the youthful Zoe, the elder encouraging patients and the younger “The Niceties” surprise has a comparatively little storyline but one plot twist does end the first act, though it shouldn’t be revealed out of fairness to the audience.
The essence of the play resides in its talk rather than its narrative. Burgess keeps the stimulating language flowing in an unbroken line–eloquent point and counterpoint between the two characters and with the playwright not obviously taking sides. Each woman builds a legitimate case for her viewpoint, though on opening night the audience seemed to respond with more enthusiasm to Zoe. I suspect that many spectators favored Bosco because of her apparently more accommodating manner and her sense of humor. Zoe can be seen as humorless, doctrinaire, and vindictive. But that may be understandable because she feels she has a record of more than 400 years of slavery and post-slavery discrimination to back her up. I won’t reveal how the play ends, but it’s obvious that both women will suffer for their strong stands.
Burgess’s script meshes seamlessly with the Writers production. Mary Beth Fisher has earned her place among Chicagoland’s leading actresses with her literate, sometimes droll performances. Her superb portrait of Bosco as both assured and vulnerable is a joy and no surprise. The revelation is Ayanna Bria Bakari as Zoe. Recently out of DePaul University, Bakari meets the challenge of selling a character who comes across as an unyielding militant making clearly unrealistic demands. But thanks to Bakari’s passion and commitment to conveying Zoe’s mindset, we can recognize the roots of the student’s discontent even if we grimace at her belligerence and intransigence.
Marti Lyons directs unobtrusively, allowing the arguments to flow naturally and inevitably. There isn’t a false note in a story susceptible to melodrama and preaching, a tribute to the rapport among director, actors, and author.
The play is being presented in the Nichols Theatre, the larger of the two Writers venues. The action is confined to a square of playing area enveloped by a massive number of books surrounding a desk and a couple of chairs at the professor’s desk. Large portraits of Bosco’s heroes Nelson Mandella, Emilano Zapata, and George Washington hang above, presuming as a testimony to the professor’s liberal credentials. Courtney O’Neill designed the set, Mieka van der Ploeg the costumes, Heather Gilbert the lighting, and Andree Pluess and Christopher Laporte the sound. A particular shout out goes to properties master Rachel Watson for accumulating and spreading around the set the hundreds of books to capture the ambiance of the academic life.
“The Niceties” is an exhilarating play, articulate and thought-provoking. Each character has her flaws (Bosco a bit too complacent in her liberalism and Zoe too doctrinaire to be fully effective in her laudable battle for racial equality). The play does not opt for an easy conciliatory ending. Indeed, it is jarring to see Fisher and Bakari take their joint curtain call holding hands and smiling after their characters have battled as adversaries so bitterly for two intense acts. The play touches on crucial facets of modern American society so accessibly that the viewers, whatever their personal opinions (or prejudices) should leave the theater stimulated and invigorated.
‘The Niceties’ gets a rating of
“The Niceties” runs through December 8 at the Writers Nichols Theatre, 325 Tudor Court. Most performances are Tuesday through Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 2 and 6 p.m. Tickets are $35 through $80. 847 242 6000 or visit www.writerstheatre.org.