Liberal thinking and racism on trial in ‘The Niceties’ at Perisphere Theater

A debate between a Black social activist college student and a white liberal history professor propels a brilliant and important play.

When an intelligent, self-empowered, social activist college student in her junior year confronts a more intelligent liberal, trail-blazing college professor at an elite college, sparks fly in Eleanor Burgess’ The Niceties. The performance focuses on racism and how the African American student has seen it throughout her life.

Meet Zoe. At 20 years old, she has life figured out. She speaks for the speechless and fights injustice. Zoe, the play reveals, is a paradox. Although she grew up in the lap of luxury, Zoe is obsessed with the role slavery has played in her life. Her target is whites with privilege, and they can never pay enough.

Hannah Taylor as Zoe and Sue Struve as Janine in ‘The Niceties.’ Photo credit: DJ Corey Photography.

In the other corner is Janine, a white middle-aged liberal history professor who had to fight her way to tenure by being the best on the previously all-male faculty. She claims to have helped other women climb the slippery slopes of the ivory walls of elite academia over the years.

The way Burgess crafts what could be a similarity between the characters into crusades is brilliant. Director Kevin O’Connell has Hannah Taylor (Zoe) and Sue Struve (Janine) wrestle around generational issues that baby boomers and millennials clumsily reckon with every day. Where the professor sees a “cult of fragility,” the student finds “awareness.”

Jessica Trementozzi’s set includes a desk with two seats facing the ergonomically correct chair for the professor. Bookshelves are on stage left and right with books used as props. In Act 1, a picture of George Washington is prominently displayed on the center of the professor’s wall. It is gone in Act 2. The books selected and the portrait figure into the story.

O’Connell allows the actors to take a step here, retreat there, sit, and stand to make full use of the limited stage. The actors’ voices and intensity are on full display in the ebb and flow of the drama. The script has an abundance of F-bombs.

The student is in the professor’s office to discuss revisions on a draft of a paper positing that the American Revolution was successful only because of the existence of slavery. The Niceties was written and is set in 2016 when both expect America to elect its first female president soon. The New York Times has not yet published the 1619 Project, which will include a similar thesis.

The problem is that there is no evidence supporting Zoe’s thesis. However, the student feels that is how it was. In Zoe’s mind, American history is whitewashed; thus no documentation exists to prove her point. Historians attacked the Times‘ work because documentation does not exist to support this supposed fact; to the contrary.

Hannah Taylor as Zoe and Sue Struve as Janine in ‘The Niceties.’ Photo credit: DJ Corey Photography.

The audience may want to take sides with one or the other of the actors based on the audience member’s experiences. If you do, you will miss an important play. Zoe and Janine hear each other, but they do not listen to one another. Consequently, their debate accomplishes about as much as Congress does. It is time to listen to one another.

Running Time: One hour and 50 minutes with a 15-minute intermission.

The Niceties plays through March 23, 2024, presented by Perisphere Theater performing at the Silver Spring Black Box Theatre, 8641 Colesville Rd, Silver Spring, MD. Tickets ($34 regular price, $30 senior, $25 student) are available online.

The Niceties
By Eleanor Burgess

Janine: Sue Struve
Zoe: Hannah Taylor

Director: Kevin O’Connell
Set Designer: Jessica Trementozzi
Lighting Designer: Trinity Joseph


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