Shades of Hope…in “The Niceties”

In “The Niceties,” now in its run at the Geffen Playhouse, Zoe Reed (Jordan Boatman) appears to be coming into her own, as an African American millennial and a promising, intelligent undergrad…until the fateful day she meets one on one with distinguished professor Janine Bosko (Lisa Banes), who seems comfortably ensconced in the privileged upper class world of academia…and an intense meeting of the minds ensues. One memorable line of dialogue is when Zoe confidently expresses, “I know how race and human experience affects people…our history is part of the American story,” basically comparing empathy and life experience to book smarts. All order, pride, and sense of capability in both their lives pulls the rug from under them, as each undermines the other. As Janine scrutinizes and critiques Zoe’s latest paper, her reputation as a bright, aspiring student is threatened; she feels racially discriminated against, crushed and backed against the wall (behind her a symbolic portrait of George Washington), and she goes into fight or flight mode, clicking ‘record’ on her cell phone, for documentation if necessary. Fast forward to act 2, where the two revisit the toxic situation, and together realize that compassion, mutual respect, and ultimate healing will only come with understanding each other, letting go of hurts and pre judgments, and giving each other the space and ability to gain self awareness and forgiveness. The play shows how a strong, smart, sharp black woman can pose a threat to an established Ivy League elite university, yet thrive and bring her own agenda to the forefront. It is no surprise that “The Niceties” is written and directed by women (Eleanor Burgess and Kimberly Senior, respectively), and their essential need to examine this most timely of topics in a theatrical format. A young woman of color, with a long history and backstory of her ancestors as victims and slaves seems the catalyst for this production. Her encounter with this professor, whom she more than once, calls ‘racist,’ gives her pause and a chance to finally step into her own, embrace her identity, although she now and again takes one step forward and two steps back, as Janine is now on unpaid leave from her position, while Zoe sheepishly admits, “with all these expectations, I just feel like sitting on the couch, watching Netflix!” The dialogue throughout the show is comparable to a strategic chess game of life, where each player thinks five minutes ahead of her next argument, all the while reflecting on her past moves. So many moments include crystal clear language, gestures, and mannerisms, depicting the two actors riding a wave, and holding strong. The play clearly reveals character development, and despite resentment and bitterness toward each other, they maintain composure and eye contact. Each tells her side of the story, and Zoe, without feeling the slightest of being shamed or bullied, calls out her professor’s wrongdoings, and takes ownership without feeling ostracized. References to modern day politics and leaders, such as Obama and Hilary Clinton (the play is set in 2016 pre election) add to the relevancy of the story. States playwright Burgess, “the play is metaphorical in that it’s white America and black America locked in a room together trying to agree about what America is.” In some way this is a mentor/role model and mentee/student relationship with each connecting and learning from the other while confronting and challenging each other as well. The audience is an active participant in the dialogue onstage as well, often feeling a range of emotions and catharsis, such as anger, excitement, & fear. Quite a ride, indeed.

Through May 12
Tues Wed Thurs Fri 8pm
Sat 3pm and 8pm
Sun 2pm and 7pm
Geffen Playhouse
10886 Le Conte Ave
(310) 208-5454

About Bonnie Priever Curtain Up!

I am a theatre reviewer extraordinairre. I attend and cover theatres ranging from large to small venues, and every subject from musical theatre to dramatic presentations. Also please check out my reviews at and my email is
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