[Blackstudies-l] Whose History Counts and How We Teach It: Play at Geva
lima at geneseo.edu
Thu Oct 31 10:44:34 EDT 2019
Thursday, October 31, 2019
‘Niceties’ puts unrelenting focus on race relations
Special to Rochester Democrat and Chronicle USA TODAY NETWORK
Despite its name, "The Niceties" isn’t about pleasantries. Instead, it’s
powerful, effective theater.
The play, running at Geva Theatre Center through Nov. 17, depicts two women
having a conversation the likes of which you’ve never had and never will.
For the characters, it’s life-changing. For the rest of us, it’s a
challenging experience that will surely have many rethinking race relations
in America and likely have some of us questioning our own perspectives
Set in March 2016, at "an elite university in the Northeast," the
conversation begins with the discussion of a student’s thesis paper. Zoe
Reed, played by Cindy De La Cruz, is a black student and Janine Bosko,
played by Jordan Baker, is a white, accomplished, middle- age history
professor. The discussion begins with niceties but quickly becomes tense
when Janine challenges the premise of Zoe’s paper, about slavery’s
influence on the American Revolution.
Janine, as a historian, asks Zoe to support her thesis with primary
sourcing such as contemporary letters. But that’s the catch. History books
— the kind filling the professor’s office from floor to ceiling — won’t
have the sources that Zoe would need to satisfy Janine’s expectations.
As written, the history of the American Revolution is almost entirely white
and male. Many of the primary figures were slave owners themselves. Zoe is
essentially asking: How can we accept a history from the perspective of an
oppressive ruling class while omitting nonwhite perspectives because of a
lack of source material? How can that be considered the truth?
Meanwhile, Janine is asking: Without historical evidence, what do we have?
Both are reasonable questions.
That alone would make for an interesting conversation: Who gets to decide
how history is written? And indeed, that’s a lot of what this play is
about. But the smoldering back-and-forth escalates from there, and we soon
see this is not just a conversation about history.
At one point, Janine gushes about how exciting it would’ve been to have
been in the room with Thomas Jefferson and George Washington as democracy
in America was coming to life. But to Zoe, a black woman who wouldn’t have
been allowed in the room, Janine is glossing over history in a way that
marginalizes Zoe here in the present.
Both characters are intelligent and both make fine points. The director,
Nicole A. Watson, said a week before the first curtain that one of the
challenges in the production is not letting the ideas upstage the
characters. She need not have worried.
The actors, both of whom have extensive theater and TV credits, have no
trouble holding the stage for the nearly two-hour run time. De La Cruz
embodies Zoe fully, and her frustration is felt. Meanwhile, it’s
interesting to watch Baker’s Janine shift in tone from the selfassured (if
not arrogant) professor to someone wrestling with some doubts.
Together, they create a palpable tension. Audience members frequently
gasped, even uttering complaints when characters said something they deemed
unfair. Other times, they spoke affirmations when it was something they
While the performances are solid and not eclipsed by the ideas, it is
nonetheless the ideas in Eleanor Burgess’s brilliant script that make this
play go. The play was inspired by the 2015 Yale demonstrations against what
students viewed as racial insensitivity from the school administration.
Burgess, a Yale alum herself, saw that Americans were no longer listening
to each other when discussing race — even while agreeing that racism is a
Janine certainly doesn’t think of herself as a racist. She thinks Barack
Obama is great, for instance. She’s the stereotypical progressive most of
us picture when we hear "history professor" and "elite Northeast
university." And she’s rooting for Zoe. But at the same time, she’s not
ready for what Zoe is suggesting, and the gap between them is greater than
Janine would like to admit or was aware of.
It’s hard to imagine this play being set anywhere but in a professor’s
office, where the rules of discourse demand that the debate be intellectual
and not emotional, and one where reason — not authority — holds power. That
arrangement enables these woman to ruthlessly go after each other. And they
do so thoroughly.
Certainly, the play could be criticized for not being a realistic
conversation. No doubt, many in the audience thought, "I would never say
that to my teacher."
But perhaps that’s Burgess’s point. She has said she saw in the Yale
protests that both sides weren’t talking. So she dreamed up what might be
the most productive conversation on race one could imagine right now. It
matters that Janine and Zoe can’t simply get emotional and storm off. It
matters that they are both progressive women, that they are both
intellectuals and that they are a generation apart.
All these circumstances create an up-to-the-minute, surgical conversation
that doesn’t bring easy answers. Neither character is all that likable. And
if the audience doesn’t know who to root for, that’s by design. Watson, the
director, said the goal was to start the debate and have the audience
continue the discussion.
It’s not comfortable. It’s not pleasant. This is not a play that evokes
many smiles or laughs — though there are some. Instead, it evokes a lot of
challenging, inward reflection, which is what makes "The Niceties" an
important piece of art.
Jason Cottrell is a Rochester freelance writer.
Jordan Baker and Cindy De La Cruz in "The Niceties" at Geva Theatre
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