‘History and race as a battleground” was the Boston Globe headline for the review of the world premiere of “The Niceties,” a new play opening Friday, January 11, at McCarter Theater. It continues through Sunday, February 10.
The conflict is between a white professor and a black female student. At stake is the meaning of America. It is a dream of democracy? A blood-soaked nightmare of racism? Or something else?
The review called it a “didacticism prone but provocative and blisteringly smart play” by Boston-region playwright Eleanor Burgess.
In an interview conducted for the Contemporary American Theater Festival, Burgess had her own thoughts and talked about how she approached the unpleasant terrain of “The Niceties”:
I love theater because theater is the anti-Internet. The Internet allows us to put anything out there without looking another person in the face and seeing its impact. Its incredibly fast pace of exchange, dialogue, and interacting with semi-strangers diminishes the obligation to listen to another person.
It was fun to write about two women who are both so firmly tied to their convictions that they will go down with the ship and bring a lot of other people with them. There’s a joy to watching that on stage because in our personal lives, we seldom follow a conversation all the way through. We either have conversations with people we agree with, or we back out of a conversation the second it gets uncomfortable.
In a climate where minority students can expect to encounter very few professors who have shared their life experiences, “triggers” —individual, verbal missteps — are much more painful because they are part of a much larger system of curricula that is not sensitive.
Professors can do their best to anticipate and try to address how students are going to perceive what they are saying, but they also have to push for changes in leadership and in how we put together our curricula.
It’s a bigger undertaking than just trying to be nice or sensitive. It involves asking yourself, “Is a lot of what I know somewhat wrong?”
As a society, we have lost places where we can go to and tackle and wrestle with difficult, ethical ideas. Fewer people are regularly attending a church, temple or synagogue, and there really isn’t any other place where you go to wrestle with how to be a good person in the world.
Film and TV sometime wrestles with those things, but film and TV are caught up in a much larger international financial system where things can’t be talked about because an advertiser wouldn’t like it. Also film and TV are not “in person,” and you can change the channel or turn it off the second you’re challenged or uncomfortable.
Theater is a place — kind of like church — where you go to be in person with other human beings and to watch a live human tell you about feelings and take you on a journey that may be very challenging or uncomfortable to you. Theater can challenge you to be better in ways that you don’t want to be challenged. If you are willing to go on that journey, you come out on the other side perhaps ready to look at your life with fresh eyes.
The Niceties, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. Friday, January 11, through Sunday, February 10. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org