Writer: Eleanor Burgess
Director: Matthew Iliffe
Reviewer: Stephen Bates
Dramatists are often accused of re-writing and falsifying history, but here, in a twist, we have a playwright who is accusing historians of getting it all wrong. Eleanor Burgess’ play, receiving its European premiere after a successful run Off-Broadway, challenges perceived truths about America’s past, going right back to the Revolution.
The setting is an elite university in the northeast United States. Zoe (Moronke Akinola) is a black 20-year-old student and political activist who has submitted a thesis on the American Revolution to history professor Janine (Janie Dee). Janine is in her 60s, white, liberal and a lesbian. It is early in 2016 and, in unity, the pair sigh sorrowfully that it is Barrack Obama’s last year in office, not having an inkling of what was to follow.
When Janine asserts that America had been lucky to have figures such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson around, Zoe retorts that this ignores the fact that both owned slaves and she goes on to argue that the version of history that Janine is teaching is “white” history, editing out the half a million black Americans who were also involved. As the daughter of Polish immigrants fleeing persecution, Janine points out that racist atrocities have impacted on her own family’s past, but the student still dismisses the professor’s supposedly liberal credentials as representing being “more afraid of looking like a racist than of being a racist”.
Akinola and Dee are both excellent. If they had been less so, Matthew Iliffe’s production would have been even heavier going than parts of it still are. The play makes us flies on the wall overlooking an academic debate, but this alone is not enough to create a drama. With the roles of teacher and pupil effectively reversed, too often it feels as if Burgess is preaching at us through Zoe. It is only when there is friction between the two protagonists that the drama gains momentum and the writer’s belated attempts to generate a narrative feel contrived.
Zoe’s advocacy of the need for history to be re-examined and re-taught from the black perspective becomes increasingly angry and she becomes increasingly vindictive. In the face of this, Janine’s defence of the conventional “white” history that she has devoted her life to teaching is feeble and Dee makes her responses seem patronising, even cowardly. Perhaps Burgess found it impossible to counter the passionate and eloquent arguments that she has written for Zoe to speak, which is understandable, but, by not finding such counters, she robs key parts of her play of dramatic tension.
Everything in The Niceties is worthy, formulating an articulate case that demands to be heard. It is only in moulding her arguments into a compelling work of theatre that Burgess disappoints.
Runs until 26 October 2019 | Image: Ali Wright