A Review by Cecile Goding
Eleanor Burgess's play The Niceties focuses on a scenario that will be all too familiar to many of us—a student meets with their professor for feedback on an early draft of a paper. What happens during one such meeting, and the subsequent fallout revealed in the second act, had me riveted.
Janine Bosko, a white tenured history professor (Jody Hovland), starts out with some pointers in grammar, which her overachieving Black student Zoe Reed (Crystal Marie Stewart) nicely accepts. When the professor soundly rejects Zoe's thesis, however, that the relatively moderate American Revolution "was only possible because of the existence of slavery," all the niceties go out the door. As Janine pedantically makes her case that Zoe's argument lacks evidence, Zoe struggles to make her point—that since the testimonies of colonial-era slaves do not exist, such evidence cannot be produced by traditional academic methods. Empathy and imagination, as well as the personal experiences of Black students like Zoe who encounter racism every day, must be recognized as valid evidence.
Anger and frustration, held way below the boiling point by these two affluent, well-meaning women, soon steams with invective. At one point, Janine erupts with "everyone is tired of hearing about racism." Zoe stands her ground, both physically and politically, accusing Janine, and white people in general, of existing in a child's garden of history. The fact that this history occurs at the end of Obama's presidency and the start of Trumpism, upsetting to both women, adds to the play's complexity.
Director Curtis M. Jackson has the two actors constantly change positions as they present their sides of the nuanced conflict, turning first one way and then the next, hemmed in by the audience, which is seated on either side of the stage. The warm, book-lined office, designed by S. Benjamin Farrar, makes an effective contrast to the anger within its cozy walls. How far the women will go, both physically and politically, to hold strong to their respective world views, I hope you will see for yourself.
The Niceties will continue March 17-20 and March 24-27 at Riverside Theatre.
Cecile Goding is from a small county in South Carolina, where she worked for the adult literacy movement before moving to Iowa City to attend the Univ. of Iowa's Nonfiction Writing Program and the Iowa Writers Workshop. She is also from New England, Saudi Arabia, and the Silicon Valley. For her poems, she has won the Theodore Roethke and Richard Hugo prizes, a fellowship from the SC Academy of Poets, and a Bread Loaf scholarship. Her poetry, essays and short fiction have appeared in journals, newspapers, and on small screens. Goding's chapbook, The Women Who Drink at the Sea, won a first-place prize from State Street Press. Recent projects involve a memoir, a collaboration with a Sudanese writer on a fiction collection, and a sci-fi opera. Previously an adjunct instructor at Mount Mercy University, she has taught for the Iowa Summer Writing Festival for many years.