A searing and unflinching look at race in America in “Niceties” at The Rep

Kimber Elayne sprawl and Kate Levy sparkle in the thoughtful “Niceties” at The Rep


It’s not guns.

It’s not gay marriage.

It’s not economic disparity nor education nor health care for all. 

The most difficult thing to talk about in America is now, and has been for hundreds of years, is race. 

Nothing  raises passions so deeply held or defies resolution more than discussions of racial relationships between white people and black people in this country. 

And rarely have those passions been on such dynamic theatrical display than they are in “Niceties” that opened Saturday night in the Stiemke Studio at The Rep.

The setting is the office of white history professor Janine Bosko (Kate Levy) at an elite northeastern college, most likely Yale University.  She is meeting with a black student, Zoe Reed (Kimber Elayne Sprawl) to review a report Zoe has done on the American Revolution. 

The two are friendly in that revered teacher/anxious student way. Small attempts at humor as Janine goes over the minor flaws. A missing comma, a gerund error. Zoe religiously notes all of the criticisms until the seminal moment arrives. 

After Zoe agrees to the minor changes, Janine hits her hard.

“I’m afraid you’re in for a substantial rewrite,” she says. “Your argument is…fundamentally unsound.”

The first rumblings from what will eventually become a volcano can be heard as Zoe tries to defend her theory that slavery played a major role in the conduct of the American Revolution.

Janine tries not to be patronizing as she discounts Zoe’s theory and defends the theories of her established colleagues. Despite herJanine’s best – and genuine – efforts, Zoe feels patronized. She feels victimized by this powerful figure in her life, and her resentment begins to morph into an anger that is frightening in its power.

Eleanor Burgess wrote “Niceties” and she talks about how she came to set the play in the time period she did. The following is from an interview she did at the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston, Ms. Burgess Hometown theater. 

“It is set during the primaries of the Republican and Democratic parties. It’s partly set there because that was when I wrote the first draft — but also ever since the election, I’ve wondered about updating it, and that would be wrong. One thing I like about the timing of the play is that the characters on stage don’t know what’s coming in this country, and we in the audience know very well. We know the stakes of liberals not agreeing with each other and not being enthusiastic about the same things. We know the consequences of a white woman failing to win over people who aren’t white and the consequences of a woman in her 60s failing to win over a millennial. We also know more than they do about how far Americans are willing to go to defend their beliefs about America and their understanding of race in America. There is a dramatic irony present in the play; we have a fear of where the conversation is going that neither of them knows or sees. We also know how much they’re going to lose and how dangerous the world is going to get for both of them.”

This play is fascinating and it’s a chilling evening of high-powered dramatic theater. Both Ms. Bosko and Ms. Sprawl are smart, sensitive and precise actors who capture the complexities of their characters. These are complex people with no place for an easy label to be pinned. This is difficult theater, but it is so worth every second of discomfort.

When it was over I found myself not just thinking about how I feel about race, but about how I act.  Thoughtful doesn’t come close to describing the experience of seeing this very special production  

Cast: Janine Bosko, Kate Levy; Zoe Reed, Kimber Elayne Sprawl.

Production Credits: Director, Annika Boras; scenic Designer, Courtney O’Neill; Costume Designer, Christine Pascual; Lighting Designer, Noelle Stollmack; Sound Design and Composition, Pornchanok Kanchanabanca; Stage Manager, Martinique M. Barthel; Production Photographer, Michael Brosilow.

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