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The Niceties by Eleanor Burgess at the Finborough Theatre

The Niceties - Photo by Ali Wright
The Niceties – Photo by Ali Wright

With her brilliantly written play, The Niceties, Eleanor Burgess presents us with a situation that appears to be about two opposing points of view between an African-American college student, Zoe Reed (Moronkę Akinola), and her professor Janine Bosko (Janie Dee).

The length and breadth of the play unfolds in Janine’s office with a massive mahogany desk dominating the small stage. As a clever set piece for the drama, (designer Rachel Stone) the desk represents the seat of power for, once sat behind it, a professor’s knowledge would be both unassailable and unattainable for any student who stood in front of it. This imbalance of power is what kicks off the confrontation between professor Janine and student Zoe.

When we meet the two women, Janine is reviewing a draft of Zoe’s term paper which proves to contain a concept that the professor finds too challenging to accept.

As Janine peruses the paper, she speaks in typical self-referential academic mode suggesting – with a nonchalant toss of her book publications and a peppering of Latin phrases – that she is the one who holds an intractable knowledge.

Zoe, who is dependent on an exemplary grade to ensure her scholarship grant, listens with vapid interest as Janine shows off her superlative use of literary phrasing and offers near patronising praise for Zoe’s use of the word ‘bedeviled‘ in her term paper. ‘I love that word,‘ Janine says. ‘All the ‘B’ words, bemuse, beguile, bemoan. Oh I could do this all day.

It’s all chit-chat with Janine offering more advice on the use of gerunds, nouns, and grammatically incompatible clauses until she expresses her admiration for George Washington, whose portrait hangs on her office wall along with Emiliano Zapata and Nelson Mandela. Surely, the faces of these three men must say something about Janine’s own revolutionary spirit – that is until Zoe presents a backlash of an argument to test it.

Janine is uncomfortable with the premise of Zoe’s term paper: that a successful American revolution was only possible because of the existence of slavery. She advises her to undertake a substantial rewrite, stating that her argument is fundamentally unsound and her research not rigorous enough to support her premise.

When Zoe challenges Janine she is like an ace tennis player, smashing into the professor’s arguments with a tennis racket. However, there is no grand slam and both women unveil aspects of their character that are somewhat agreeable, but more often than not, repugnant.

Without divulging the plot, Zoe is revealed not so much as a zealot who wishes to right the wrongs of slavery, but as someone with a desire to institute restrictions on white university professors that would be as abusive as what she purports to be the crimes of democracy against African-Americans in present-day America.

Janine offers personal information to prove she’s a liberal and sympathetic to new ideas. She’s married to a woman. Isn’t that enough? But she flaunts an insufferable knowledge and continues to wield it throughout the play.

What is sad is that when their arguments collapse, both characters lapse into name calling.

You’re a coward.‘ Zoe shouts.
You and your whole fucking generation. Of savages.‘ Janine replies.

Although most of The Niceties is played out as a treatise of American democracy on trial, it is so well written and its arguments so well formulated, you will leave the theatre questioning your own politics, as well as whose side you were on during this academic debate. Go see it if you value a verbal punch up.

4 stars

Review by Loretta Monaco

There is one appropriate way of responding to a woman of color who says, I have an idea to assert, and that is to shut up and listen.

America. 2016. Within the stately office of an elite university two women united by their vision for the future, but divided on how to get there, meet to review a history paper that asks one big question: has America reached the moment for its real, radical, revolution?

When a clash of ideas becomes a complicated discussion about race, the niceties begin to wear thin and one woman is forced to put everything on the line in order to make her case.

As their private dispute explodes into a public war, the devastating consequences of their good intentions are laid bare, as both student and professor ask: Have we left it too late to repair our divided society?

Directed by Matthew Iliffe
Set and Costume Design by Rachel Stone
Lighting Design by Lucía Sánchez Roldán
Sound Design by Kate Marlais

Moronkẹ Akinola | Zoe
Janie Dee | Janine

The Niceties by Eleanor Burgess
1 October – 26 October 2019


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