One of the most ever-present arguments in theatrical history has been over the “purpose of theatre”. Is it simply there to entertain, to create a moment of afternoon diversion from the banality of life? Or is it there to educate, to teach people something about the world around them, or even something about themselves? While people will constantly argue this point, and while there are fine arguments to made on either side, I feel that at its best, theatre should leave you a different person than the person you were when you walked in the door, and few plays have reached so deep into my core than the latest from Jarrott Productions, Eleanor Burgess’s incendiary Off-Broadway hit, “The Niceties”. Diving deep into the dark of heart of millennial society, watching “The Niceties” is like entering a war zone, where the battle lines are not so clearly drawn, but where landmines lie in wait at every step. It’s difficult viewing, and it’s sure to make quite a few people very upset, but it’s one of the most edifying experiences I’ve undergone in some time.
As “The Niceties” begins, you can be excused for thinking you’re getting a rather typical story of a simple collegiate disagreement, as African-American student Zoe walks in to discuss her latest term paper with her professor, Janene, which has a rather controversial premise: the Revolutionary War succeeded thanks in large part to the institution of slavery. What begins as a simple disagreement with this thesis statement soon tumbles into deep, murky quagmire, as weaknesses are revealed, patience is tested, and the darkest parts of both of our participant are brought into the light. As the First Act comes to its tense, breathless conclusion, one wonders just how much further this play can take us, until we’re thrown right back into the lion’s den as the fight is redoubled in its later stages. It makes for a tense, difficult play to watch, but also a spectacle of car-crash intensity you can’t look away from.
With a play so full of bold, audacious ideas, it’s important to have performers we can sympathize with, so it’s impressive that both of the actors here are able to play their characters so flawlessly. Jacqui Calloway takes on Zoe with a unique sensitivity, which makes her fiery explosions as the play progresses hit so powerfully. It’d be too easy to just write her off as just another “hysterical millennial”, if not for the grace Calloway brings to the role (and of course Burgess’ sharp writing), and as the play progresses, the anger feels backed by a righteousness that makes her arguments all the stronger. On the other side, it’d be easy to write Janene off as a pompous dinosaur, if not for the charm and intelligence Francesca Christian brings to her role. In many ways Janene could be seen as the villain of the piece, but Christian is so endearing in the role that it’s difficult to dislike her. If one of these actresses were off their game, the whole conceit of the play would fall apart, so it’s a testament to both of these actors’ skills that the play works as well as it does, and also a testament to the skills of director Jeremy Rashad Brown, who keeps firm hold of the reins even as the play and its characters buck and kick.
“The Niceties” doesn’t provide easy answers, partly because it doesn’t pose easy questions. It pulls deep into the frustrations at the heart of contemporary society, those elements that lie deep within us all, but that we’re often too afraid to voice, ever-afraid to break the facade of civility that keeps society moving. “The Niceties” shows us the dangers of keeping your head below ground, however, as it helps us to realize that our worst selves are just a slight string-tug away. As the play begins, Janene is not shown as some pompous racist, and Zoe is not shown to be a whiny millennial, and it’s because we’re coming from a place of trust that the truths we’re forced to face hit so hard. These people could be us. In no insignificant way, these people are us. One of the true heartbreaking, harrowing elements of “The Niceties” is that it makes us look at what’s wrong with ourselves, with what’s wrong with our institutions, and our society.
“The Niceties” has the potential to make a lot of people very angry. It’s a shot across the bow, a cherry bomb thrown into the well of society, blowing away the shards of pretense with which we live our days, leaving us with a bleeding, raw heart. What “The Niceties” does provide, for those brave enough for a little self-reflection, is a treasure trove of difficult, fiery conversations. “The Niceties” doesn’t tie up its loose ends, and therefore invites the audience to try to do so themselves.
First with last year’s “Admissions”, and now with “The Niceties”, Jarrott Productions has proven itself a company unafraid of bringing controversial ideas to Austin stages. It would be so easy for them to fill their season with fun, lighthearted plays, which would bring in huge crowds, and make them plenty of money in the process, but David Jarrott and company prefer to take a more dangerous route. Jarrott Productions is a company looking to start conversations, to wake people up to the problems in the world around them, and maybe even better themselves in the process, which is perhaps the most noble aspiration a theatre company can have. The company is turning itself into one of the most essential voices in Austin theatre, and I for one can’t wait to see what else they have up their sleeves.
Photo courtesy of Carlo Lorenzo Garcia