‘The Niceties’ at Interlochen challenges traditional roles
INTERLOCHEN, Mich.–History professor Janine Bosko quips to her student Zoe Reed that her back pain from years of being hunched over scouring research material is a “ghastly metaphor for what we do for knowledge.”
In many ways The Niceties, the polemical 2017 play by Eleanor Burgess
presented at Interlochen Center for the Arts as part of their annual
Shakespeare Festival, is a ghastly metaphor for the impossibility of empathy
amid radical difference—how little we can know and understand each other.
Any semblance of niceties quickly disappear in this two-act drama that
plays out in an extended scene between an African-American college student and her white history professor during office hours. It quickly devolves into a debate that leads to an unraveling of both their lives if not the very fabric of society.
It’s heavy stuff. And though this production, directed by Krista Williams,
is marvelously performed by Shavonna Banks and Christine Marie Brown, with excellent design, including a beautiful set by Elinore Loomis, it hits so
close to home it’s hard to watch.
Zoe Reed argues in a paper due for Professor Bosko’s class that the
existence of slavery made the American Revolution successful. An original
idea drawn from one of Bosko’s lectures, Bosko insists it is flawed without
stronger evidence and research. Reed bristles at this, and pokes holes in
the academic discourse Bosko has built her professional life upon,
insisting “research” and “evidence” as Bosko defines it is inherently
racist and otherwise discriminatory.
They both make valid points, though neither succeeds in fully hearing the
other. Empathy completely breaks down as the lesbian, feminist, liberal
humanist who believes in the American Dream goes head-to-head with the
millennial of color calling for radical revolution at any cost who uses
technology as a weapon. When she surreptitiously records part of Bosko’s
misguided private tirade and it goes viral after she posts it on social
media, death threats and a revocation of tenure ensue amid other fallout
for them both.
Banks’s Reed is complex and sympathetic, the scales clearly tipped in her
favor by the playwright. Christine Marie Brown embodies the brilliant
professor who sacrificed and worked hard for everything she achieved only
to realize how unsteady everything she built is amid a need for radical
change. She’s pathetic in her clinging to the old guard while also claiming
progressivism, as well in her desire to compromise. Her wounds are physical as well as structural: a victim of the system into which she bought and mastered. And yet Zoe no more comes out ahead in her fervor to dismantle that system, and they both take each other—though not necessarily the system—down.
When the two hours are done, and everyone in the room feels bludgeoned,
even curtain call doesn’t clear the air as the two actors take their bows
from opposite sides of the stage.
It’s heartbreaking and apocalyptic, successfully designed to make us
uncomfortable yet offering no solutions or even an invitation into further
dialogue that seems more impossible than ever. Ultimately it begs the
question: what is it for?