The rules of social engagement undergo a powerful rewrite when discourse between a white professor and a Black undergrad goes from cordial to combustible in “The Niceties,” kicking off the 16th season of MOXIE Theatre.
The action takes place in the office of American history professor Janine Bosko (Mouchette van Helsdingen) on the campus of an unnamed university in the Northeast. Janine ushers in Zoe Reed (Deja Fields) for what should be a pro forma review of the student’s term paper.
“Do you like my chair?” asks Janine, as a boastful icebreaker.
It’s a prestige ergonomic model, in sharp contrast to the unitary hard metal chair Zoe is offered. Courtesy of scenic designer Julie Lorenz and property designer Angelica Ynfante, other décor details include framed images of slave-owning Founding Fathers and a veritable fortress wall of floor-to-ceiling bookcases containing the prevailing chronicle of American history.
Janine is oblivious to the effects of these microaggressions and so much more as she starts the review of Zoe’s work with tedious line editing of grammar.
As to the central idea Zoe puts forth – that the American Revolution succeeded only because of the existence of slavery – Janine flatly dismisses the argument as “fundamentally unsound,” lacking written documents from the enslaved to support it. She also takes issue with Zoe’s research method calling it “unsophisticated” because of an over reliance on internet websites. That far too many of Janine’s sentences contain the dismissive “you millennials,” indicates Zoe is being judged as much if not more than her ideas.
Zoe lands a punch by questioning Janine’s fitness to teach citing her offensive habit of mispronouncing the names of students of color. “In all my classes,” says Zoe, “I write down the things I shouldn’t have to hear!”
Janine offers an olive branch: A deadline extension so the paper can be revised, but that proves inconvenient for the socially minded student who has committed her calendar to marches and other protest engagements in order to hasten long-overdue change in the world. Zoe’s impatience extends to informing her professor she needs (and fully expects) an A-minus on the paper so she can sally forth into the world with the “bullshit credentialism” her Ivy League diploma will confer.
The gloves come off, accusations are hurled by both sides at an accelerated pace and vocabulary becomes profane as racism, privilege and generational differences are argued. At a critical point, Janine is horrified when Zoe triumphantly brandishes her mobile phone revealing the conversation has been surreptitiously recorded. A forceful scuffle over the device ensues. Zoe presses SEND.
The rest of the story deals with the consequences of both women’s actions. Janine has been suspended without pay and her tenure is under review for assaulting a student. Reaction to the release of the audio recording has been a decidedly mixed bag for Zoe, ranging from published praise to online trolling to public marches to death threats. As a result, she has stopped attending classes.
Janine reaches out and Zoe returns to the professor’s office where subtle changes have been made. Among them is a comfortable-looking leather chair in place of the rigid guest seat and an image of Pancho Villa now graces a wall once occupied by George Washington and his colonial colleagues. Janine’s attempt at redecorating, unfortunately, is marred by her decision to keep a wooden tea cart. It sticks out as a holdover from genteel plantation life.
These are complicated characters whose actions make it difficult to root for one over the other. At times, you want to take both by the shoulders and shake them. It’s no mean feat pulling off this level of emotional intensity. Actresses Deja Fields and Mouchette van Helsdingen are sensational in their respective roles as aggrieved student and hidebound academic under masterful direction by Delicia Turner Sonnenberg.
by Lynne Friedmann