Set in March 2016 at “an elite university in the Northeast” — a stand in for Yale University from which playwright Eleanor Burgess graduated and found inspiration in 2015 demonstrations against purported racial insensitivity by the Yale administration — The Niceties begins with a discussion of a student’s thesis paper.
Played by Cindy De La Cruz, Zoe Reed is a black college student and campus activist. Played by Jordan Baker, Janine Bosko is a white, accomplished, middle-aged history professor. The conversation is initially cordial but quickly becomes tense when Janine challenges the premise of Zoe’s paper — that the professor finds unorthodox and under substantiated — about slavery’s influence on the American Revolution.¹
Pointing to the dizzying flow of points and counter points, in Beyond the Nest Reviews Geva’s THE NICETIES, Carol White Llewellyn, describes how — once past the niceties of polite discourse — the two women “wander through a thorny landscape strewn with racism, minority oppression, civil rights, feminism, LGBTQ persecution, patriarchy, issues of colonization, white privilege, politics, and, yes, even history” in which the audience is challenged to assess competing versions of social change and academic methodology.
In “The Niceties at Geva will make you rethink your assumptions about race relations” (Democrat and Chronicle, 10/29) Jason Cottrell offers an insightful and persuasive review capturing the atmosphere of this well performed debate play both thought provoking and dramatic.
My only divergence from Cottrell is his take on the characterization of Professor Bosko: “She’s [Janine] the stereotypical progressive most of us picture when we hear ‘history professor’ and ‘elite Northeast university.'” Based on my experience, the representation of Janine does not quite feel representative.
As the play progresses, we learn that Janine is liberal, a feminist, gay and from a working class background. Yet, she has racial blind spots, capable of making insensitive comments: asking why Zoe cares so much about slavery when it didn’t happen to her and referring to Zoe as “you people,” quickly correcting herself that she meant Millenials not African-Americans.
In graduate school, my thesis director was progressive, feminist, gay and from a working class background. Her reading list was chocked full of 19th century black women authors like Harriet Jacobs and Francis Harper. Based on her background — or “subject position” as they say in the ivory tower — it feels inconceivable that Mary Cappello could be racially tone deaf.
Furthermore, we are led to believe that Janine’s scholarship is — if unconsciously — outdated if not conservative, overly endeared with the Founding Fathers and too much written from their perspective.
Again, this representation feels unrepresentative. In previous eras, race was relatively absent from scholarship on the American Revolution. However, since the 1970’s, one would be hard pressed to find a history professor at Yale who did not view the Early Republic through a racial prism. Look no further than a suggested reading list available for Geva patrons. The works on the list would more likely than not be staples in a Yale syllabus.
Of course, if Janine did not have racial blind spots, there would be no dramatic tension: the clash between a Black Lives Matters activist bent on tearing down institutionalized racism and a liberal willing to work within institutions. As the play progresses, Janine — whether ingenuous or not — projects more racial enlightenment, expanding her scholarship to include more racial themes and modifying her sometimes fawning Founding Fathers lectures, becoming more the representative progressive, gay feminist from a working class background. (One can now imagine Janine’s lectures on the Founding Mothers.)
But for Zoe, Janine’s seeming enlightenment is not enough. As the clash goes public when Zoe disseminates the conversation via social media, both are subjected to torrents of criticism from the political left and right with negative consequences for both.
Progressives in the audience probably root for a full reconciliation. After all, the play is set during the 2016 Republican primaries just as Trump is winning the nomination. Three and half years later, progressives might feel an urgency that natural allies stay united. But the reconciliation never comes; the two remain at logger heads. Ultimately, The Niceties both endorses committed social activism and works as cautionary tale about the dangers of internecine warfare.²
In addition to his on-line-only extended review, in “Small play has big ambitions” (10/27/19), Jason Cottrell explores issues of historical revision and rewriting through a conversation with director Nicole Watson (below).
As presented by Cottrell, Watson discusses how she believes The Niceties is concerned with “invisible histories;” in this case the voices of slaves during the American Revolution. For Watson, histories of revolutions tend to “exalt the good and don’t deal with the bad.” Through Zoe, the play invites a radical rethinking of American history. For Watson, such a reevaluation is not to be feared but welcomed. As she says, “that’s why I always come back to: What’s the harm in rethinking our history?”
This commitment to historical revision becomes even more relevant when linked with the ongoing The New York Times‘ 1619 Project. After the performance, I spoke with Cindy De La Cruz who knows well the 1619 Project.
With articles written almost exclusively by black academics, journalists and writers, 1619 reexamines of the legacy of slavery in America. Challenging the notion that American history began in 1776, the project argues that American history begins with the arrival of the first slaves in Virginia, culminating in a 100 page special issue on August 19, 2019 observing the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery. According to founder Hannah-Jones, all contributions were deeply researched, and arguments verified by a team of fact-checkers in consultation with a panel of historians.
Both Cindy and I could see Zoe as one of the black writers and Janine as the fact checking historian. I can imagine Zoe and Janine still sparing: Janine finding some of the essays too speculative in which the evidence cannot carry the weight of the claims; Zoe feeling the writers do not take their critiques far enough.
Not surprisingly — just as Zoe was trolled for accusing her professor of racism — 1619 drew criticism from conservatives. Two days after the special addition, in Conservatives’ Freakout Over the 1619 Project Reveals Their Fear of America’s Actual Past (8/21/19), The Nation‘s Jeet Heer catalogues the meltdown:
“This is simply a LIE,” Newt Gingrich barked. “Pravda was never more dishonest than this effort to write a ‘left history.’” Ilya Shapiro of the Cato Institute tweeted in a like manner, “Writing about history is great, but a project intended to delegitimize mankind’s grandest experiment in human liberty & self-governance is divisive, yes.” Daily Signal contributor Jarrett Stepman wrote that the goal of the series is “to delegitimize American ideas and place race and slavery at the heart of literally everything this country is about.”
These complaints are tame compared to Rush Limbaugh’s invectives.
I rarely listen to Rush; I can only take his repetitive, reactionary polemics for so long. However, on August 20th — on an otherwise placid and sunny afternoon walking on the Canal Path in Genesee Valley Park — I tuned into “NY Times Piles Hate on America with the 1619 Project”, curious to hear Rush discuss the American Revolution at an uncustomary level of detail.³
I quickly realized Rush’s goal was to thoroughly discredit 1619:
The New York Times and their new premise, their new narrative is that the United States is a gigantic fraud. That the real story of the United States that’s taught is bogus. That America’s true past is one of immorality, injustice, racism, bigotry, homophobia . . . The premise is that everything great about America, American exceptionalism, all of America’s great achievements are essentially illegitimate because they would not have happened without slavery. . . a primary problem The New York Times faces is that everything in their premise is a lie . . . this project at The New York Times is obscene . . . criminally wrong . . . journalistic malpractice . . . it claims the United States is a criminal state that has achieved its unwarranted power and prosperity on the backs of people of color . . . This new hoax, this so-called project of theirs is to convince people that the founding of America is not what they’ve always been told that it was.
The passage displays Rush’s typically facile but potent rhetoric: gigantic fraud, bogus, illegitimate, a lie, obscene, criminally wrong, malpractice, a new hoax. Hearing Rush’s ranting voice live cringes.
When leaving Geva after the show, I realized my sympathies (60 – 40 %) were with Janine. As a college professor, I well know how a thoughtless comment can have consequences not always fair. As for Zoe, I was waiting for her to launch an “OK BOOMER” bomb.
But after re-reading “NY Times Piles Hate on America with the 1619 Project” and remembering Rush’s veiled racist diatribe as I strolled the Canal Path, I could more empathize with Zoe and her “subject position.” At one point, Janine wonders how Zoe can live with so much anger, if not hate, inside her. How Zoe should manage that anger is one issue, but that she feels pain should be no surprise. As for progressives, the tragedy — if that is the right term aesthetically and ideologically — remains: why can’t natural allies unite?
¹ Especially for undergraduate history majors like myself, the pleasure of the play is as much the dramatic intensity as the interplay of ideas. In the “The Niceties” (review) (DC Theatre Scene, 7/11/17)
Many revolutions have come in two phases — one led by the nation’s business class, intellectuals and lawyers; and then a more radical revolution, led by the nation’s underclass. History is replete with examples: France, with Robespierre following the Girondists; Russia, with the Bolsheviks following Kerensky; and Iran, with Ayatollah Khomeini following Bakhtiar. Why didn’t it happen here?
Zoe’s provocative thesis is that slavery prevented a second revolution: that since there was an underclass which was completely subservient, there were no potential revolutionaries against the social and economic order — except for the slaves themselves, who were brutally suppressed as a matter of course.
If true, the implications are staggering. Had Alexander II not freed the serfs, would Lenin never have come to power? Is history’s lesson to the autocrat that he must so mercilessly control the lowest economic class that it can never rebel, thus protecting his country from radical revolution?
I tested Zoe’s thesis further. The English Revolution was primarily a bourgeois undertaking diminishing the monarchy. Unlike in France, there was no second revolution, no uprising of sans-culottes. But England had no slaves so Zoe’s thesis fails. In the United States, the rise of Andrew Jackson and his common man constituency is sometimes referred to as the Second American Revolution. If Jackson marked a second revolution, it was a far cry from the bloody uprising of the underclass in France and Russia. And, of course, Americans held slaves. So Zoe’s thesis holds.
² Any discussion of The Niceties must include its structural and thematic similarity to David Mamet’s 1992 Oleanna. Both plays pit a professor against a student. In Oleanna, the theme is male sexual harassment; in The Niceties the theme is white racial insensitivity. Both contain moments of physical confrontation. In both, a polite conversation between professor and student morphs into a public controversy in which the professor — in a reversal of power– has the most to lose.I saw the 1995 performance at the Shipping Dock and was riveted by Mamet’s signature broken dialogue that is both naturalistic and stylized.
Comparing Oleanna to The Niceties yields significant differences. In The Niceties, Zoe and Janine have common ground they can’t find. In Oleanna, the sexist but not harassing professor and the hapless feminist indoctrinated student stand in stark opposition. Furthermore, Mamet hints that he sympathizes more with the professor who might be a victim of political correctness, a sympathy Burgess would not seem to share.
Nonetheless, Burgess remains faithful to Mamet’s structure even if she might reject his ideology. As I knew the irreconcilable ending of Oleanna, I wondered if Burgess would conform or reject Mamet’s vision and form. She doesn’t. When John calls Carol a c**t, it’s not unlike when The Niceties ends with Zoe saying she hears in Janine a death rattle.³ The issue that most bothers Limbaugh is a claim from Nikole Hannah-Jones:
Conveniently left out of our founding mythology is the fact that one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery. By 1776, Britain had grown deeply conflicted over its role in the [racism and slavery] that had reshaped the Western Hemisphere. In London, there were growing calls to abolish the slave trade.
To refute this claim. Limbaugh refers to Erick Erickson’s Another Egregious Factual Error in the New York (8/20/19).
In his refutation, Limbaugh could have taken issue with Hannah-Jones that the preservation of slavery was a primary reason. Instead, he repeats a weak claim from Erickson: “The abolitionist movement in London didn’t take effect until after we were founded in 1776.”
That is not true. Yes, the abolitionist movement in England did meet it goals until the early 18oo’s.
But as scholars like Simon Schama have shown, the English abolition movement made great strides in 1772. Mansfield’s decision in the Somerset’s Case led to 10 – 14,000 slaves in England being freed by 1774 — before the supposed date that Limbaugh says marked the beginning of the British abolitionist movement.
Furthermore — as Schama details — the colonists, especially southern colonists were concerned that England might impose some form of abolition on its colonies. When the war began, the British promised freedom to slaves who would fight for the crown. Many did, only further unnerving the colonists.
So whether or not the preservation of slavery was a primary or secondary cause, it is clear that the colonies did not want England to impose abolitionist laws upon them. And, given the specter of slaves aiding the British or revolting, the War for Independence took on a new urgency: no abolition in 1776. Both Zoe and Janine would agree that Limbaugh is wrong on many levels.
ALSO ON GEVA