A traditional office hours discussion will escalate into an impassioned debate on the fundamentals of American society Tuesday.
“The Niceties,” a play running through May 12 at the Geffen Playhouse, showcases this debate to illustrate the reverberations of racial injustice. Set at an elite East Coast university, the play explores a discussion between a white professor and her young black student who attends office hours to seek feedback on her thesis about the American Revolution. The student argues that insurgency would not have been possible without the institution of slavery. The professor vehemently disagrees.
“Through the debate that heightens in intensity, the characters expose the skeletal problems of the conversation we’re seeing today in America,” said director Kimberly Senior.
The professor claims the student’s assertion doesn’t have accurate historical backing. She retaliates by arguing that revolutionary history is told solely through the lens of white individuals and therefore lacks unbiased credibility. The discussion of the paper’s validity lays the framework for a much larger conversation about racial demographics and discrimination on both college campuses and society at large, said playwright Eleanor Burgess.
“It’s about communication. It’s about putting your beliefs out there,” Burgess said. “And it’s about how we should talk when we disagree.”
The storyline was inspired by Yale University’s Halloween costume controversy in 2015, in which a debate between racial insensitivity and freedom of expression was sparked, Burgess said. Yale’s Intercultural Affairs Committee sent an email to the student body urging them to avoid wearing culturally insensitive costumes for Halloween, such as headdresses, turbans or blackface. In response, a faculty member sent out an email saying she felt the original message hindered students’ freedom of speech.
Since Burgess is a Yale alumna, she said the conversation hit close to home. Having experienced the intense Ivy League culture firsthand, Burgess said she drew from her familiarity in order to pose the question that forms the basis of the play’s narrative.
“How do we waive the niceties of academic discourse and freedom while supporting the personal feelings of young people?” she said.
Throughout the play’s running time, a variety of answers to this question unfold. According to actor Jordan Boatman, who plays university student Zoe, it’s easy for audiences to understand both characters’ perspectives, since they are both informed, scholarly individuals with valid points.
“The first time I read the script I was pinballing back and forth between the two perspectives,” she said. “These women have genuine respect for each other, and they’re trying to meet in the middle.”
“Since both characters hold the same progressive political views, it focuses the conversation about white and black America. It allows us to hone in on specific details,” she said. “Rather than having this be a politically polarized debate, it’s one that becomes much more personal.”
Although the piece addresses topics that are heavily discussed in today’s political climate, Burgess said she aims to instead highlight generational differences and emphasizes the need for healthy discussion.
“There’s a tremendous amount of empathy in this play. Audience members are able to stand in someone else’s shoes, and hopefully they’ll go out and have these important conversations,” Senior said.