“Cocktails After Curtain”

Thoughts Inspired by “The Niceties” 

By Jagger Waters 

Eleanor Burgess knows how to get your attention. 

Conversations that dive into the necessity of intersectional feminism are almost so common in the entertainment trenches of our metropolitan bubble, it’s easy to forget that the concept is still new to most Americans. Discussions of racial injustice in and throughout history have become a cultural imperative, a part of our left-leaning diet. 
“The Niceties” is exactly what characters Zoe and Dr. Janine Bosko leave behind. They are pulled past the veils of each other’s privilege and headfirst into conflict. “The Niceties” is a woven attack from one generation onto another in an ouroboros of blame and self-righteousness. That’s not meant to discourage you - why go to the theater at all, if you’re looking to stay comfortable with your worldview? Who really knows best: the youth who sees beyond the charade of polite historical fiction, or the elder who helped shape it? 
Burgess is able to split the audience, dependent on race and socioeconomic background. Zoe and Janine fire off the piercing thoughts and excuses we use on one another to justify, defend, or expose racial bias. This splitting, though counter-intuitive, may be exactly what we need right now. “The Niceties” is a return to theater designed to make us question the world we walk back into after curtain call. Burgess isn’t asking us to experience anxiety or anger without reason.

Zoe, a young black student at an ivy league university, sacrifices herself and faces the consequences of becoming a self-elected, viral whistle blower (if we’re allowed to reappropriate the term). Zoe turns a blinding spotlight onto Janine’s opinions, which are revealed to be not just outdated, but dangerous. For an audience who finds themselves making excuses for Janine’s regressive point of view, Zoe exists to stop them in their tracks. 

The way Zoe speaks to and stands up to her professor, an authority figure who assumes inherent respect from everyone, will shock an older audience, while Janine’s refusal to compromise with or comprehend Zoe’s concerns will inspire a younger audience to continue challenging archaic, institutional thinking. 

The implications are daunting, perhaps even terrifying for older generations. Over time, we may remember academia and all other institutions that favor white, elitist perspectives as a long, embarrassing misstep to avoid responsibility for the suffering of all who are not white or privileged. The all too visible hand that has directed the motions of history and informed our structures of education and government (even democracy itself) can no longer remain unpunished. How do we get out of this vicious cycle, if so many people, ourselves included, have benefitted from these institutions we must now hold accountable? 

While “Google” becomes a weapon that Zoe uses to defend herself against Janine, it’s a reminder that marginalized voices can and are recording their corrections of history. Perhaps the pendulum will never swing far enough to solve or heal the past, but now, tools to be heard in the digital age are finally at the every(wo)man’s disposal. Phone video and audio recordings are the new quill and parchment, documenting the violence and bias that white Americans have managed to ignore, until now. 

As Zoe makes her point, blame reaches through generations and stains Janine’s hands. The professor believes we have reached the end of progress, while Zoe knows there is a much longer road ahead. In these characters, I see two women who could, in theory, agree. But the dynamic between a young woman of color and a matriarch, attached to her worldview shaped by white history and reinforced by the esteem of academia, transforms these characters into loaded guns. 

At the end of the night, I’m left with questions: For how much longer can we continue to forgive ignorance? Are we using trigger-warning culture as a shield to protect ourselves against what is painful? Is each and every one of us personally responsible for staying glued to the deluge of daily news, often in which new injustices are uncovered by the minute? When will we all be satisfied with progress? Is achieving it for everyone impossible? 

Please note: This is not a critical theatrical review of “The Niceties.” Jagger Waters and We The Women Collective encourage readers to see “The Niceties” at the Geffen Playhouse. Ticket details below!  
“The Niceties”Playwright: Eleanor BurgessDirector: Kimberly SeniorActors: Lisa Banes & Jordan Boatman 
“The Niceties” performs through May 12 at the Geffen Playhouse. Get your tickets here
Check out our interview with “The Niceties” playwright Eleanor Burgess here