“Get over it! It did not happen to you!”
A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis
Produced by: The Conciliation Lab
At: The Basement, 300 E. Broad Street, RVA 23219
Performances: October 1-16, 2021.
Ticket Prices: $30 General Admission; $20 Senior/Industry (RVATA); $10 Student/Teacher (with valid ID)
Info: (804) 506-3533; 349-7616 or https://theconciliationlab.org/
NOTE: Proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test within 48 hours of the performance must be shown at the box office.
The title of Eleanor Burgess’ two-person play is deceptive, to say the least.
n. pl. ni·ce·ties
1. The quality of showing or requiring careful, precise treatment: the nicety of a diplomatic exchange.
2. Delicacy of character or feeling; fastidiousness; scrupulousness.
3. A fine point, small detail, or subtle distinction: the niceties of etiquette.
4. An elegant or refined feature; an amenity: the niceties of civilized life.
Under the precise, insightful, and nuanced eye of director Dr. Tawnya Pettiford-Wates, an encounter between Zoe, a black student at a liberal arts college in a prestigious university and her white history professor, Janine, a 1960s style feminist, turns into an explosive debate that leaves fallout on a nuclear scale.
The two disagree on a key tenet of Zoe’s paper, the impact of slavery on the outcome of the American Revolution. At first I was unclear who initiated this meeting. A synopsis of the play in the program indicates that Zoe is called into her professor’s office to discuss her paper, while Dr. T. and Zoe (Mikayla LaShae Bartholomew) hold the view that Zoe initiated the meeting to make sure she’s on the right track before submitting the final paper. It’s a small detail, but knowing how the actors see it provides some insight into the development of the play.
“It is easier to be pro-equality
when there is a subjugated minority in your midst.” – Zoe
Burgess apparently does not subscribe to the minimalist school. THE NICETIES is complex and wordy – and you will want to hold on to every word in this dense and razor sharp script. This is a version of the historical realism genre; it is intense and relevant, with mentions of President Obama, the election of Trump, and the possibility of a woman president. It is a play that made the audience talk back, bringing to mind the experience of attending a predominantly Black church or attending a movie in a Black neighborhood – until the final scene of Act One sent the entire theater into an uproar. No need for a spoiler alert, ’cause I’m not telling – I want you to see this for yourself.
“Evidence drives back ignorance.” – Janine
What started out as a seemingly simple discussion about the proper placement of commas, subject-verb agreement, and grammatical parallelism subtly escalates into a debate about history, politics, and racism. Debra Clinton plays the role of Professor Janine Bosco. I know Debra Clinton as an actress and director, but I did not see Clinton on stage at The Basement. Clinton inhabited the role of Janine and all I saw on stage was Janine. Thanks to Janine’s inability to listen, we learned a lot more about her that we – or Zoe – needed to know. Thanks to Janine’s inability to listen, we learned of Janine’s struggles to become a tenured woman professor in a previously all-male academic environment. This made it all the more difficult to see her as a monster, as indeed she is.
“Everyone is tired of hearing about racism.” – Janine
Zoe initially appears, in turn, distracted by her constantly buzzing cell phone and on the verge of exploding. She is smart, opinionated, and a deeply committed social activist (and I quickly identified Bartholomew as an academic and spiritual protégé of Dr. T). If she were white, especially a white male, she would be called confident, but she is Black and a woman, so she is most likely to be labelled as aggressive, angry, threatening. But Burgess and Dr. T. make sure we also see her as vulnerable and hurting. “What do you want?” Janine asks her at one point. To which Zoe responds, “I want this to be your problem!”
“Greatness does not come from a supportive environment.” – Janine
This is my first time seeing Bartholomew on stage, and I hope it won’t be the last. She gave a nuanced and intense performance as Zoe, making us empathize with her but without sugar-coating her flaws. Zoe wants, needs, and demands to be heard. She wants to be respected. She is tired of waiting and being “nice” so others will feel comfortable. The character of Zoe embodies if not personifies the mission of The Conciliation Lab: a social justice theater organization dedicated to the process of CONciliation, not REconciliation, because you cannot re-do something that has not been done before.
“In all my classes, I write down what I shouldn’t have to hear.” – Zoe
Act Two is one of the rawest and most revealing scenes I have ever witnessed in theater. A large portrait of George Washington on a horse has been removed from Janine’s office wall, but a copy of Kathleen Stockett’s 2009 novel, The Help is prominently displayed on a table and Janine proudly pulls out a copy of a book by journalist Ta-Nehisi Paul Coates, widely known for his work on African Americans and white supremacy. It’s the academic equivalent of saying, “but, I have Black friends!” Micro-aggressions in academia take many forms. But there’s more. Much more. The fallout from Act One also leads to some not-so-subtle consequences, from articles and blogs to marches and death threats. So how does it end? How is it all resolved? Well, that depends on which worldview you most relate to, and which experiences you bring to the table.
THE NICETIES is the kind of play that should have a discussion after each performance – especially when the audience is as diverse as it was for Saturday’s opening night performance. There was so much said, so much packed into Burgess’ many words, and so much that still needs to be unpacked. The beauty of the arts is that art can open the door to the hard conversations, and we need to take advantage of these opportunities when they are made available – especially in safe spaces. Note the dates, below, when post-show conversations will be available, when planning to buy your tickets.
Faith Carlson has created a professor’s office that is stereotypical and filled it with familiar props: books, pictures, a laptop. I especially liked her “fourth wall,” a super low bookcase that framed the space, with the audience (about 50 seats for this production) seated on three sides. Austin Harber’s lighting was subtle and washed the actors in a warm light that was often gentler than their words demanded, and Kelsey Cordrey’s sound design heavily favored hyped hip hop beats that fuel the train that Janine called a quest for freedom and Zoe described as an engine for racial oppression.
Written by Eleanor Burgess
Directed by Dr. Tawnya Pettiford-Wates
Mikayla LaSahae Bartholomew as Zoe
Debra Clinton as Janine
Scenic Design: Faith Carlson
Lighting Design: Austin Harber
Sound Design: Kelsey Cordrey
Costume Design: Amber Martinez
Props Design: Faith Carlson
Production Stage Management: Crimson Piazza
Assistant State Management: Emily Ellen
Associate Direction: Heather Falks
Photo Credits: Production photos by Tom Topinka.
Friday, October 1 at 8pm – Preview
Saturday, October 2 at 8pm – Opening Night
Thursday, October 7 at 8pm – College Night with post-show discussion
Friday, October 8 at 8pm
Saturday, October 9 at 8pm
Sunday, October 10 at 3pm – Matinee with post-show discussion
Tuesday, October 12 at 8pm – Industry Night
Thursday, October 14 at 8pm
Friday, October 15 at 8pm
Saturday, October 16 at 8pm – Closing Night
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