Contemporary American Theater Festival 2017: 3

The Niceties, by Eleanor Burgess, is this year’s festival production most likely to spark discussion in the car on the way home. Zoe (the centered Margaret Ivey), an African-American junior at an elite university somewhere in Connecticut, is in conference with her Polish-American history professor Janine (the buoyant Robin Walsh, who brings a little Christopher Durang to the part), reviewing a draft term paper. What begins as guidance about Zoe’s research methods (Janine urges fewer online links, more primary sources) spirals into an extended argument between the two women, who are separated by generation, race, and perhaps other qualities. Granted, Janine is sometimes culpable of some measure of whitesplaining. Zoe’s need to call out Janine for certain insensitive remarks (a gleeful anecdote about wordplay and British imperialism on the subcontinent, for instance) spirals into a full-on shouting match. The piece compensates for its lack of theatricality by being smart and balanced. We eventually learn that Zoe has enjoyed many advantages unavailable to those she considers her peers, while Janine has suffered some long-simmering prejudice.

There is a power reversal reminiscent of David Mamet’s Oleanna, and a somewhat unclear denouement. Will Zoe work incrementally within the system, as Janine advises, to shape curricula and faculty that better reflect the experience of marginalized people? Will she rage against the machine from without, refusing compromise? Or will she escape the fight altogether, becoming a 21st century Josephine Baker?

Easily overlooked in the play’s back and forth about class and race is the conflict over what constitutes historical scholarship in this century. What weight are we to give crowdsourced emotional responses, for instance, against a documentary record dominated by a particular socioeconomic group? How do we match the unwritten experiences of 18th-century enslaved people with the Federalist of Hamilton, Jay, and Madison? The rage of a Trump rally with a peer-reviewed research paper?

The provocative exchange between these two intelligent women, alas, outstays its welcome. The text needs some trimming.

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