Jarrott Productions' 'The Niceties' is an audacious, confrontational, and ever-so-relevant piece of theatrical dynamite

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.

“The Niceties” is playing at the Trinity Street Theatre through February 2nd. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit jarrottproductions.com

Photo courtesy of Carlo Lorenzo Garcia

Jarrott Productions’ “Admissions” is a stunning examination of race in millennial America

Race is a tricky subject to tackle in any medium. Take one wrong turn, and your piece becomes offensive and you’re booed off the stage. Go too saccharine or over-the-top, and your piece loses its believability, therefore making it all but worthless. There are so many pitfalls in creating a piece that examines race, that when one comes along that not only creates an engaging narrative, but also starts an intriguing conversation about privilege and diversity, then one can’t help but stand up and pay attention. Joshua Harmon’s Admissions is one such play, being given a solid production by Jarrott Productions, the story of how one family is forced to face their own prejudices when their son faces rejection from his college of choice, while his friend, part-black, gets admitted. What follows is not your standard demonization of racism or a treatise on white guilt, but a subtle, thorough examination of how privilege and millennial social structures can make the gulf between social responsibility and white pride surprisingly narrow.

There are those actors whose name alone brings a smile to the face, whose presence in a program alone will elevate a piece. Rebecca Robinson is one such name. She tackles each role with an emotional acuity that allows her to transform every time, though one does begin to wonder if she’s becoming a tad typecast as of late. As Sherri, she has to walk a tricky high-wire act, where, even in the earliest moments of the play, her character runs into a number of race-related potholes. Celebrated for the diversity that she brought to the school (eighteen percent!) as its Admissions Director, her beliefs are put to the test when she faces the results of a set of admission standards in her own home. The way she struggles in the face of these challenges makes for an fascinating character, and in the wrong hands this would all fall apart in a mess of screams and sobs, but there’s something about the way Robinson shapes her emotions that makes even the most volatile moments take on crystalline, multi-faceted shape. Her anger is not just anger, but a mix of frustration, sadness, regret, privilege, and you feel it all with every conversation she has. The nuance she brings to the role adds a humanity, an earnestness to the proceedings, that helps ground the action, helping us to relate to not just her character, but also those around her, which is the sign of a particular strong actor. It’s always a delight to see Robinson on stage, and Admissions is proof of just why she’s so celebrated in this city.

On the other side of the coin is another element I love to see in a work, a talented newcomer. Tucker Shepherd plays Charlie, Sherri’s son and a bright, intelligent, opinionated young man, who, as the play begins, has just found he was not getting into Yale. The emotional intelligence that Shepherd brings to this role is nothing short of staggering, especially given his young age and inexperience on the stage. He has one tricky monologue early on, where he is forced to confront his own privilege and racial tendencies (and even sexism), going on off on a tirade that would crucify the character in lesser hands. It’s a compliment to his commitment and courage as an actor that when he finishes, we’re left not just with contempt, or even pity, but a sense of understanding. Charlie is also the role that goes through the most changes over the course of the play, leaving Shepherd with quite a bit of heavy lifting. but the actor proves himself up to the task, turning and twisting the psychological journey of his character in a understated, delicate way, that keeps audiences engaged and sympathetic. The actor has quite a future ahead of him, and if his future performances can be of this high a caliber, we can hope but see him again sooner rather than later.

In a play as heady and powerful, a little bit of levity can go a long way, and that is just what Jennifer Underwood brings to the table as Roberta. The unfortunate creator of the university’s admissions brochure, she’s tasked with showing a more diverse student body in the brochure’s images, and the steps she takes to make this happen is nothing short of hilarious. Like every character in the play, she’s forced to come to terms with her own racial insensitivities, though through her we see how they can take a more subtle form. Roberta claims to not “see race”, and goes too far when tasked with showing a more “diverse student body”, but her intentions are good, and she never acts out of malice. There’s an undeniable charm and sweetness that Underwood brings to the table, a sense that even at her character’s most stern or inept moments, we can’t help but love and understand her. The actress makes sure the character doesn’t come off as one-note or hokey, bringing personality to the role that might not have been evident on the page. We don’t spend very long with the character of Roberta, but Underwood makes sure those moments are memorable, and hilaroius.

Admissions had a challenge the moment it began, in that any examination of race was going to be studied with a fine-toothed comb. Fortunately, this subtle, intriguing examination of race and privilege was not just intelligently crafted, but the production it was given was fine-tuned (which we’ve come to expect from director David Jarrott), and played with rare emotional intelligence. The actors show respect for their themes, giving them room to breathe and live, never straying into cloying or radical territory, but always remaining aware of the more sensitive aspects of the optics at play, creating an engrossing, heartfelt, and delicate work of art. It can be a difficult sit at times, and one that forces us to examine our own privilege, but isn’t coming away a changed, or even better, person the sign of a truly successful piece of theatre?

Admissions is playing at the Trinity Street Playhouse through October 6th. For more information, and to purchase tickets, please visit jarrottproductions.com.

Photo courtesy of Jarrott Productions.