CHESTER — What begins as a simple conversation between a college student and her history professor over a paper on the American Revolution erupts into a full-blown debate over power, privilege and systemic racism in Eleanor Burgess’ “The Niceties.”
Chester Theatre Company’s production of Burgess’ volatile two-character drama began performances Wednesday, July 14 at Hancock Shaker Village, where the show is scheduled to run through July 25.
Set in the office of a widely respected professor in comparative revolutionary history — a 60-year-old white academic named Janine — “The Niceties” opens with a discussion between Janine and one of her students, Zoe, a socially and politically active Black 20-year-old political science major with a high GPA. Zoe has come to Janine’s office to discuss possible revisions to a paper she is preparing that argues that the American Revolution was a success only because of the existence of slavery.
The early talk is about nouns, gerunds, agreement, details. There is more. “Your argument is fundamentally unsound,” Janine tells Zoe. At once, these two, separated by race and by generation, plunge into treacherous territory in a vigorous debate that will have consequences for them both.
“The Niceties” was developed in July 2017 at Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, W. Va. It had its world premiere during the 2018-19 season in a shared opening among Huntington Theatre Company in Boston, Manhattan Theatre Club in New York and McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, N.J. The play has since been produced at regional theaters around the country and had its European premiere in October 2019 at Finborough Theatre in London.
“The Niceties” originally was planned for Chester’s ultimately COVID-canceled 2020 season.
“[Chester Theatre Company artistic director] Daniel [Elihu Kramer] had sent me a copy of the script,” director Christina Franklin said during a joint interview with her cast members — Stephanie Everett, who is playing Zoe, and Andrea Gallo, who is playing Janine. “It struck home for me right from page one. I was immediately drawn to the play.
“I love a debate. Here, we have two people who are not willing to agree to disagree. These two intellectuals (get) into the ring and refuse to back down.”
Burgess was inspired to write “The Niceties” by an incident at Yale University, where she majored in history, in the fall of 2015 “and the conversations and arguments that cropped up in its wake.”
“I became obsessed with how dysfunctional those conversations and arguments became — with how deep the divisions in this seemingly unified community really ran,” the Brookline native said in an interview that appeared in the program for the Huntington Theatre Company production. “I didn’t know what to think, and when I don’t know what to think, I start writing to try to find out.”
Within the academic setting of Burgess’ play at an elite liberal college in the Northeast, words have meaning; consequences. There are words-a-plenty in “The Niceties.”
“I struggled early on because there is so much to say,” Gallo said. “These people are so hyper-literate. (Janine) might say in a hundred words what someone else would say in five.”
“Coming into this play … I was confused at first how you make an argument personal,” Everett said. “Zoe is caught in what being Black means to her. And at 20, you think everything is fact. There are so many moments she just says something because she is so naive.”
“I can relate to the generational part of this,” Gallo said. “Janine seems to have had great experiences in her life. Now, for the first time, this celebrated woman is being asked questions she doesn’t know how to answer.”
Gallo and Everett agree that Janine and Zoe display more than just a bit of arrogance, albeit justified.
“Pretty much everything they say about history is correct,” Everett said. “It’s how they interpret (history).”
It’s the difference between listening to and actually hearing what the other has said.
“Sometimes Janine is listening to the student, but not hearing the person,” Franklin said. “So often we listen to the words without hearing the person (who is speaking them).”
Gallo, Everett and Franklin agree with Burgess that no one character is right and no one character is wrong.
“Let them both be people,” Burgess writes in notes in the published script. “... resist the temptation to think of only one of them as a mouthpiece for the truth.”
Franklin expects “The Niceties” will make for some hearty conversation among theatergoers on their way home.
Writing in the Huntington Theatre Company program, Kimberly Senior, who directed the Huntington production, sees “The Niceties” as “a rallying cry that we must find a way to reach across the aisle, bridge the divide, and find a way to be good neighbors — and maybe, just maybe, we will do a little better next time we are facing someone we might consider an opponent.”
“It’s very rare these days to see critical debate with people who are trying to find agreement, common ground,” Franklin said. “I’m interested in our audiences seeing in ‘The Niceties’ critical debate rooted in love.”