Originally premiered at the Huntington Theatre, Boston, before transferring to Manhattan Theatre Club, New York City, The Niceties marks the European debut of a stunning new American playwright, Eleanor Burgess.
America. 2016. Within the professor’s university office two women united by their vision for the future, but divided on how to get there, meet to review a history paper that asks one big question: Who actually gets to decide history in the first place?
The setting is an elite university in the last year of the Obama presidency and there are just two characters. Janine is a white, sixtysomething history professor who keeps a portrait of George Washington on her wall; Zoe is a 20-year-old black student and an eager participant in campus protest. Battle is joined over a paper Zoe has written claiming that America never had a truly radical revolution because the people really suffering were slaves who had no voice. Janine admits it’s an interesting thesis but demands documentary proof. Zoe counters that the exploited rarely leave evidence behind. This broadens out into a ferocious argument about the partial vision of history taught in the US, with Zoe accusing Janine of racism.
As their private dispute explodes into a public war, the devastating consequences of their good intentions are laid bare, as both student and professor ask: Have we left it too late to repair our divided society?
At the Finborough theatre, London, until 26 October.