Eleanor Burgess’s two-character play The Niceties reflects much of the turmoil that is currently afflicting American campuses as old shibboleths crumble in the light of new historical and sociological research, and as heightened passions inflame young minds. Its two acts take place in late March 2016 and three weeks later. Much happens during that time, including the fact that Donald Trump has demolished Jeb Bush in the Republican primaries and is now headed into the convention as the presumptive nominee.
The two characters are Janine Bosko (Lisa Banes), 60, a rising historian up for tenure at a prestigious Connecticut university that strongly suggests Yale. (Full disclosure: I am a Yale graduate, class of 1966. Also, the playwright is a Yalie.) She is presently teaching a course on Revolution, and her thesis is that the United States never had a violent revolution because the first one, against the British, was moderate. Other revolutions—the French, the Russian, the Cultural Revolution in China, Iran—turned authoritarian in a very short time. (Some historians consider the U.S. Civil War and the Reconstruction that followed a “second revolution,” but somehow this argument does not figure into the play.)
Her counterpart is Zoe Reed (Jordan Boatman), an African-American poli sci junior who has just turned in her term paper for her professor’s advance review before final revisions and submission. Zoe, who would be around 20, is an über-politically correct radical campus and community activist who spends all her free time organizing rallies, demonstrations, and protests. Tonight she is headed off to a protest against visiting campus speaker Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court, because of her less than stellar record on civil rights cases. Another night she’s demonstrating against leftist historian Howard Zinn because of his position on Israel (if I heard that correctly—which I may not have, because Zinn died in 2010).
As the reader will likely have already surmised, Zoe’s beef with the academic establishment is that it fails to acknowledge that the relatively peaceful though patrician American Revolution, which gained the support of the majority of the white population, was from the start predicated on the enslavement of an estimated 500,000 or more human beings, who had little to personally gain from overturning the British monarchy in the American colonies. As a lot of people in mainstream political thinking are saying today, many of the instruments of government, such as the Senate (which overprivileges small states), the House of Representatives (which per the Constitution counted slaves as three-fifths of a person for representation purposes, even though the slaves were hardly “represented”), and the Electoral College, to name a few of the most meretricious ones, were all geared toward preserving white supremacy and undermining the democracy the Revolution supposedly fought for.
To Zoe, terms such as incrementalism, gradualism, and reform, are meaningless so long as Black Americans are being gunned down by police in the streets.
To Zoe, terms such as incrementalism, gradualism, and reform, are meaningless so long as Black Americans are being gunned down by police in the streets. To her, nothing short of a new revolution in America, a toppling of the present regime (that would include people in the way such as the patronizing—or “matronizing,” if that’s a word—Prof. Bosko), is required.
The graphic design for the program shows two queens on a chessboard, the black queen on a white square, the white queen on a black square. Obviously, only one side can win this game.
It’s important for Burgess to have written these characters as two women. Any other distribution of genders would have tilted the conflict in other directions, involving male supremacy, privilege, or chauvinism. She keeps her argument cleaner without that additional twist, although the issue of sexuality does arise. Not so incidentally, the director of the play is also a woman, Kimberly Senior, who keeps the fireworks blasting for two solid acts, leaving the audience agape with astonishment at the amazing ways two women can find of growing their contempt for the other’s views and inflicting pain.
If these are the parameters of the current debate, with attitudes that demonstrate extreme intolerance and lack of empathy, it’s fair to question if democracy itself has a fighting chance in America anymore. What we see here, in the confines of a professor’s office at an elite school, is a microcosm for the conversation, or lack thereof, that bedevils the media and all public discourse these days. In both style and substance these two women appear to be miles apart.
Geffen Playhouse Artistic Director Matt Shakman addresses his audiences in the Playbill, positing that the playwright never comes “down on one side more strongly than the other” and hailing her “incredible sense of balance while navigating a thorny and complex set of issues.”
Yet I would argue that unattractive in their own ways as each of the characters is, the missing piece that might have brought them more into line with one another is a class approach, and a dialectical one at that, appreciating the evolutionary nature of history. Zoe is a partisan of every hot-button issue out there—Black Lives Matter, of course (though not, that I recall, referred to as such), authentic pronunciation of students’ names, correct pronouns, a guest speaker’s purported Zionism, etc. Not only is she a fervent advocate for these causes, but she resorts to the same kind of documentation and misrepresentation of her opponent’s views that we have seen with the Breitbart crowd: recording professors’ lectures, classes, and conversations without permission and publicly shaming them for their ideas. There is more than a touch of what the Left classically calls “nationalism” in her approach—replacing white professors who teach ruling-class history with Black ones who identify with the people’s struggles. There seem to be no reservations about post-colonial regimes that have gone on, under leaders of all colors, to exploit their people just as mercilessly. There is no mention of the historical agency of the working class as such.
At the same time, Janine’s background as a young Polish immigrant who well remembers her early life in communist Poland before she and her parents emigrated to America, also has no reference point in the working class. The Polish “revolution”—if that’s what we can call the installation of a pro-Soviet government after World War II—in her eyes also turned to dictatorship. So to her, social advancement comes from a citizenry well educated in the tradition of gradual change—civil rights, LGBTQ progress, women’s rights, the expansion of voting rights, etc.—and it is her job as a university professor to give students the research and analytical tools to move the process along in a democracy they love despite its at times brutish history. She does make the point that these changes have come about because with each passing year more and more Americans were brought over to their acceptance; the changes were not effected by force or violence (thus her ever more justified conclusion that moderate revolution, rather than radical revolution, is the way to go).
An appreciative notice for Cameron Anderson’s stage design: A top-floor office that looks like it might once have been a storage attic whose eaves have been adapted to provide space for an untenured professor. Bookshelves and piles of tomes indicate an engaged and intricate mind. The top portion of a Gothic-style window provides light and also reminds us of the hoary academic tradition to which Janine belongs. On one wall she has pictures of some of her revolutionary heroes—George Washington, Poland’s Solidarity movement, Nelson Mandela, Emiliano Zapata, and others (interestingly, no women!). The angles of the roof above form a kind of obelisk pinnacle bent askew, as though the Washington Monument had been reconstructed by a Cubist.
Before the play began, as the audience seated themselves, a soundtrack of social change songs from the 1960s and ’70s played—“Turn, Turn, Turn,” “The Universal Soldier,” “I Ain’t A-Marching Any More,” and “The Times They Are A-Changing,” among others. These songs are the common inheritance of both Janine and Zoe, though they predate both of them (maybe Janine not chronologically but certainly predating her coming-of-age years), and though they are all tellingly in the male voice. I understood the soundtrack as a way of reminding the mostly middle-aged, middle-class theatre audience that they were young and rebellious once too, which in liberal West L.A. is a reasonable assumption.
I was such a young rebel myself, active in Students for a Democratic Society during the Vietnam War years. The crisis was so real, so vitally existential, that I could not have cared less for empathizing with campus officials, political leaders, and police who placed roadblocks in our path toward ending the war and carnage. I like to believe that by placing the blame on corporate war profiteers I kept the ultimate enemy (the capitalist class) always foremost in my consideration, but along the way I know I must have offended a lot of people who didn’t deserve my incendiary rage.
Years ago, I asked my Uncle Sandy an important question. He had been a Communist Party member from Norfolk, Virginia, in his youth: One of his life’s proudest moments was the weekend he was assigned to be Paul Robeson’s driver, guide, and security detail on a visit to Norfolk in the Jim Crow era (shades of the 2018 film Green Book) and enjoyed far-ranging conversation with Robeson for three days almost all to himself. He later went underground for a time during the Smith Act years, eventually leaving the Communist Party in the 1950s but remaining committed to social causes and labor. Anyway, I asked him how he kept at it all these years. “Pace yourself,” he said. “You’ve got to set a pace you can maintain for the long haul so you don’t burn out. Yes, there will be times of intense activity and other times when the movement is slack, but overall, pace yourself.”
Janine in Zoe’s eyes was going way too slow; and Zoe, to Janine, was going way too fast. They both recognize, of course, that in the deliberations of the Founding Fathers they were both left out, as women and as people of color. Framed so narrowly in 2016, each case leaves a lot of recrimination and human detritus lying on the field. Each is so blindered in her manner of thinking that they can only conceive of the other as the main enemy to be fought now—one the less-than-radical professor, the other a destructive, apocalyptic hothead who wants to seal a death warrant for the exploiting class. Neither of them can see the larger picture, one where both traditions can be respected and change can be instituted. (Even the Communist Party, for what this observation is worth, had their famous “dialectical” Jefferson Book Shop off Union Square for decades, though I doubt they would choose such a name today.) I don’t believe the word socialism was ever mentioned in the play.
In 2017, Calhoun College, one of Yale’s residential units for undergraduates, named for Yale graduate John C. Calhoun, a U.S. vice president, a senator from South Carolina, a defender of slavery, and forefather of the Confederacy, was renamed after years-long protest and study. Progress! Yet it was renamed for Rear Adm. Grace Murray Hopper (1906-92), a mathematician and computer pioneer who worked as a U.S. naval officer in the mid-20th-century years, an institutional decision that also raised hackles among some in the Yale community—not that she was a woman but that she applied her scientific mind to the advance of imperialism. It seems that every step forward provides not only expanded opportunities but, in the absence of universal consensus, some backlash as well.
In the play, both Zoe and Janine comment about the Obama presidency as it is winding down, and now with Trump as the presumptive Republican nominee, they are looking forward to the first woman president in Hillary Clinton, under whom the same struggle over the content and pace of change will inevitably resume. One can only wonder, what if their energies had strategically retreated from Zoe’s maximalist demands and Janine’s self-satisfied smug inertia (the “niceties” of their debate, which has never been nice) and combined instead for achievable goals on which a convincing majority could agree?
Like it or not, liberals and leftists need each other. The Left cannot achieve any of the demands it puts forward without liberal support, which may be reticent but more deeply guarantees permanent acceptance—even by conservatives who once were in opposition (see Social Security, Medicare, voting rights, same-gender marriage); and the liberals need the Left to legitimize their claim to represent the working class in its wide diversity.
Few people like to think of themselves as a bad person. Many people in these “woke” times want to behave well, though it’s not always self-evident what such behavior asks of them. Action has to be placed in the framework of long-term strategy of winning ever more people to your side—not alienating them! Big mistake of the Weatherpeople of my generation! Some patience and a little ironic humor (qualities V.I. Lenin cited as requisites for the revolutionary) are needed.
The Niceties plays in its West Coast premiere at the Geffen Playhouse through May 12. For tickets and other information, call (310) 208-5454 or go to the Geffen website. The theatre is located at 10886 Le Conte Ave., Los Angeles 90024.
Eric A. Gordon