In retrospect, the idea of school is terrifying. It’s not the homework or the papers or expensive textbooks that are worrisome, it’s the fear that schools—especially universities—will do everything they can to suppress my conviction about my identity and extinguish my thoughts, experiences, and perspectives. That fear is crystalized in Eleanor Burgess’s The Niceties, now in a streaming production from InterAct Theatre Company.
The Niceties follows Zoe (Angela Bey), a sharp Black woman college student with the kind of brilliance that is penetrative and unrelenting. Zoe moves with conviction: she believes in her ideas and her work and isn’t afraid to keep it real. That brilliance comes to a head with her white history professor Janine (Janis Dardaris), who’s highly critical of Zoe’s thesis paper.
The paper claims that revolutions fail to help the people who are really suffering, inflicting economic inequality, racial injustices, and a wide variety of oppressions. Janine diminishes Zoe’s thesis, deeming it speculation or conjecture without evidence. Janine begins by making puns at the expense of cultural terms and smothering Zoe with didactic anecdotes that fetishize colonizers like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, leading to a long, exhausting exchange as Zoe fights for her thesis and tries to make Janine see her own racism.
The Niceties is so not-nice. It’s hard to watch.That’s how good it is.
The story’s backdrop is the tumultuous 2016 election season and a hot summer of social unrest. Zoe has been attending marches and rallies and staying alert to what’s happening around her. She sits firm as Janine’s passive-aggressive encouragement to rewrite the paper becomes hostile. The more Janine pushes, the more I want to press pause or stop the stream altogether. It’s too real. I’ve been where Zoe is here. Janine is the kind of instructor you wish ill on, praying that their pens explode black ink all over their white clothes on the last day of class, or better, they get fired and never ruin another student of color again. Instructors of Janine’s caliber hardly ever see their own fallacies, making The Niceties as frustratibng as it is authentic.
School’s out forever
I found myself yelling at the screen more than once. Sometimes, I am in sync with Zoe, shouting the same words at the same time. I had to remind myself that I was watching a fiction piece, not a recording of a real meeting. Exasperated tears welled up in my eyes.
Bey navigates nuances seamlessly in their performance as Zoe, a Black woman who has been told to be “patient” and “tolerant” by her (white) counterparts—counterparts who don’t offer her any solicitude. Bey strikes balance, never leaning into any extremes to get the point across. Zoe's anger, joy, and weariness are all tempered, much to Zoe’s own chagrin. This, too, is frustrating: Black women (and nonbinary Black folks) are always muted in reality and in fiction. While Zoe’s decisions are invigorating, the compassion in me roots for her to kick Janine out of her chair.
At 90 minutes, the show makes good use of its virtual platform, so even those with Zoom fatigue should consider watching—but anyone with experiences like Zoe’s should proceed with caution. Stories like this can feel like more excavation of Black suffering. While I think this helped me put words to my own experiences, it’s not an experience I want to engage in again.
Image description: A logo image for The Niceties at InterAct. A diagonal rip divides a rectangular field: on the top right is an image of Black women at a protest. Below the divide is an upside-down portrait of George Washington, and the title in large white text.
What, When, Where
The Niceties. By Eleanor Burgess, directed by Kathryn MacMillan.Streaming through Sunday, May 9, 2021. interacttheatre.org.
The performance offers closed captioning.