In 2015, Yale University was rocked by student activists demanding change within an organization founded on white supremacism and still mired in systemic racism. (Don’t even try. The school was founded in 1701 by Connecticut colonists to educate puritanical clergy—in other words, white men only. It was named for a wealthy member of the East India Company, which made fortunes on the backs of slave labor throughout the world. According to Yale’s most recent figures, Black and African American students make up less than 8 percent of the student population.)
The flashpoint for the unrest at Yale was Erika Christakis, a professor who defended the right of students to wear “offensive” costumes after a memo went out urging Yalies to avoid cultural appropriation or otherwise potentially problematic choices in their Halloween attire.
Eleanor Burgess’s one-set two-hander at Writers Theatre looks a lot like Yale. Set at an unnamed elite Connecticut college, The Niceties is a blistering battle between Janine (Mary Beth Fisher), a Christakis-reminiscent professor, and Zoe (Ayanna Bria Bakari), a formidably intelligent undergrad. When Zoe comes to Janine for feedback on a thesis paper, things escalate from errant commas to scorched earth with the speed of a flames licking through an archive of 17th-century primary documents soaked in petrol. Or rather, the speed of a viral video.
Janine faults Zoe’s thesis for its lack of primary source citations. But those sources are difficult—if not impossible—to find. Zoe’s paper deals in large part with African Americans and their role in the American Revolution. That population wasn’t in a position to generate the voluminous paper trail left by Washington and Jefferson. And even if she could find primary sources, Zoe adds, she doesn’t have time to rewrite. She’s booked solid with protests, actions against Sandra Day O’Connor and Howard Stern among them.
Janine acknowledges the problem with sources. But she riddles her language with microaggressions, side-eyes Zoe’s extracurriculars, and expresses a baffled contempt of millennials’ “cult of fragility.” Greatness, says Janine, can’t be achieved if you spend your life protected by “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces.”
In Bakari’s ruthlessly intense performance, you can see how exhausted and enraged Zoe is by the barrage of the “everyday awful” of being a Black woman in a world where history renders her invisible and daily life makes something as innocuous as going for a jog a racially fraught experience. As Janine, Fisher nails the look (and sound) of a white liberal who makes the mistake of believing that her own (substantial) battles mean she understands and can minimize those of a Black woman.
With a lesser cast, The Niceties would be more debate than drama. The point-counterpoint structure works because director Marti Lyons gets such incendiary performances from Fisher and Bakari. Zoe gets the final blistering word with the humbled (or is she?) Janine, but Burgess makes it clear that she could wind up paying dearly for her own act of revolution. v