Politics of Identity Class Sees “The Niceties”

By, Jamila O. ’19 and Julie W. ’19

On September 14, seniors in Mr. B.’s Politics of Identity class, along with several faculty members, ventured outside the Winsor gates to attend the Huntington Theatre Company’s production of The Niceties at the Boston Center for the Arts in the South End. This critically-acclaimed play, written by Eleanor Burgess and directed by Kimberly Senior, follows the splintering relationship between Zoe, a black student, and Janine, a white history professor at an elite university in the Northeast. When Zoe meets with Janine to receive early feedback on her research paper, what starts as a civil conversation about basing arguments on evidence devolves into a racially-charged dispute about the biases present in academia, the way history is taught in higher education, and modern politics. Ultimately, Zoe and Janine cannot reconcile their differences, and the audience members are left unsure as to how they are supposed to feel about the two characters.

However, this feeling of confusion and ambiguity regarding the characters was precisely what Burgess wanted to inspire in the audience. She noted in an interview with the Huntington Theatre Company, “This play especially is about having a conversation that is both right now and very challenging. Hearing other people react to it is part of the experience, and it starts a conversation that lasts long after you’ve seen the play.” Indeed, the social commentary that the play offered evoked many strong reactions and inspired thoughtful conversation among the Winsor students and faculty members who attended. Many students found that their feelings towards either or both characters shifted significantly over the course of the play, as the words and actions of both characters at times seemed reasonable, but at other times were difficult to empathize with. 

“While watching The Niceties, I found myself in constant conflict between which character I should ‘side with.’ In the first act, I agreed with a lot of what Zoe had to say about history and the American Revolution being whitewashed. Her beliefs made it easy to ‘side’ with her and villainize the teacher,” noted Kayla L. ’19. However, her firm support of Zoe did not last long. She added, “As the show went on, I began to realize that though the teacher made some complicated and perhaps prejudiced remarks, the point of view of this character was just as valuable and needed as [the point of view of] Zoe’s.” Kayla emphasizes her complex feelings about both characters by concluding, “It is true that the teacher’s beliefs were antiquated, but I don’t think that it was right of Zoe to tell the teacher that she wasn’t qualified to teach at the school or that course.” 

The play’s depiction of the difficulty and complexity of discussing race in a productive and open manner resonated with many students as well, some of whom had participated in similar conversations about the ways in which race influences the history and narratives that we learn at Winsor. Chloe Duval ’19 feels a particular affinity with Zoe, saying, “I’ve had similar conversations with many [Winsor] teachers, and there were times when it felt like Zoe had been with me throughout my Winsor career and like she knew how I felt. However, Zoe’s anger [and] frustration in combination with the professor’s vehement ignorance only escalated the situation.” Despite these complicated feelings about Zoe’s behavior, she ultimately concludes, “Hindsight is 20/20, and I can’t say for sure that I could respond with more grace than [Zoe] did after dealing with the burdens of being black in white academia.”

The conversation surrounding The Niceties did not halt once the attendees exited the theater; on September 21, the Politics of Identity class had the privilege of hosting actress Jordan Boatman, who portrays Zoe, to speak about the production in a follow-up discussion and Q&A session. Ms. Boatman landed the role of Zoe shortly after graduating college this past spring. She said, “I ended up reading the script, auditioning, and loving it.” Her passion for the show, its message, and her character was evident in her performance; when asked about her initial reactions to each character’s point of view on this issues explored on the play, Ms. Boatman remarked, “I as the actor started out very much in the middle… I could hear what Janine was saying, and I thought she made some valid points.” However, throughout the rehearsal process, she felt that it was her duty as an actress to “get on Zoe’s side completely.” 

“If you can’t advocate for your character, no one else is going to,” she noted. “What’s great about Zoe is that there’s a lot of things that she says that I’ve never thought of before…there are many things that I personally agree with, and many things that I don’t necessarily think are correct, but at the end of the day, I think she’s extremely smart, and I stand behind her 100 percent.”

Ms. Boatman also provided insight into the play’s ultimate goal and the messages she hopes the show conveys to its audience. When asked about the effect that the heated, confrontational interactions between Zoe and Janine has on audiences, Ms. Boatman observed, “That is the way [the conversation] had to go because everyone needed to see the extreme of where these difficult conversations can lead. Both characters see things in a different light, they both experience a lot of different emotions, and they both successfully get several points across to the other… I would hope that at the very least, they get to a place where they can respectfully agree to disagree.” 

Ms. Boatman also hopes that the play inspires more productive conversations among its viewers, sharing, “I hope that people have conversations not just with people we agree with, but those you disagree with. Find places that you agree and have that be the jumping off point to discuss things you disagree about. What I hope is that the play starts multiple conversations, and that those conversations go better [than the one between Zoe and Janine].” 

The show certainly accomplished this goal among the Winsor community, and as Ms. Boatman reflected, we can all consider its thought-provoking messages as we strive to effect change in the world and in our own lives.