The irony of THE NICETIES, by Eleanor Burgess and, now playing at MOXIE Theatre through October 4th is just how quickly the characters in this play drop any pretense of them. What starts out as a routine office hours visit to a professor’s office quickly turns into a debate that highlights differences in generational and critical thinking, racism, privilege, and power. This is a smart and ambitious play that explores how quickly the very power you think you hold can be turned against you.
It opens with Zoe (Deja Fields), a smart black student bringing her thesis to her white, and tenured history professor Janine (Mouchette val Helsdingen) for review. Zoe is hoping to get a good grade to not only maintain her scholarship but to also sweeten any future job prospects. Janine starts out with some helpful small suggestions; grammar, how to restructure a characterization in her writing, both to establish her character as a smart and constructive professor and also to soften the blow when she delivers her condescending dismissal of Zoe’s main argument.
Zoe’s thesis is “A successful American revolution was only possible because of slavery”, which Janine describes as “imaginative” before chastising Zoe on her research methods and not having enough first-hand documentation to support the argument. Zoe points out that those who are exploited were not in the privileged position of leaving behind letters, diaries, or personal effects Janine. Zoe argues that race is integral to American history and Janine finds the constant discussion of race is depressing to both herself and African-American students.
Soon their arguments move well beyond the thesis statement and into more incendiary topics. Janine, who is a 1960’s feminist who as the daughter of Polish immigrants has faith in the American democracy, and that making incremental advances is to be lauded as sustainable. Zoe, a millennial who is tired of waiting for equality and progress to actually manifest, and is willing to devote her free time to protests to see the change she wants in the world.
Fields brings an increasing intensity to Zoe, as she sharpens her arguments and her claws. As Janine, val Helsdingen is grounded, confident, and unflappable, right up until the foundations for her confidence is completely rocked. Both performers make the characters more than just their arguments, both are right, wrong, and challenged by each other throughout the course of the show. Janine is offering what she wishes she had as a young, gay, female student, and which Zoe rejects because she’s lived her life seeing that the kind of “equality” that Janine is offering is not equal at all.
History is written by the winners, but the play offers a look at what happens when those who were the young radicals find them selves as the establishment. It looks a lot different when your definition of winning is now the one being challenged.
Besides exploring the many racial, and social beliefs between their jagged generational lines the play is also an interesting portrait of how people have stopped learning how to have arguments without devolving into full-out confrontations, threats, and out and out blackmail. It’s almost as if the social “nicety” of not talking about politics or money has led to an inability to have any kind of conversation about them at all.
The set by Julie Lorenz is full of bookshelves and windows, highlighting the status Janine has as a professor while creating a nice sanctuary from the trials of the world outside the university. Lighting by Cynthia Bloodgood and costumes by Faith James all work together complete the picture.
THE NICETIES is a thought provoking show about two complicated and smart women, and the price of power, change, and who gets to decide what is decided to be remembered and what gets ignored.
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The Niceties by Eleanor Burgess
Director: Delicia Turner Sonnenberg
Janine: Mouchette val Helsdingen
Zoe: Deja Fields
Set Design: Julie Lorenz
Costume Design: Faith James
Lighting Design: Cynthia Bloodgood
Sound Design: Mason Pilvesky
Properties Design: Angelica Ynfante
Stage Management: Beonica Bullard
Assistant Director: Vanessa Duron
MOXIE Theatre, 6663 El Cajon Blvd Suite N, San Diego, CA 92115
Run Dates: September 17- October 04, 2020
DISCOUNTS: Seniors, Students, and Military
BOX OFFICE: 858-598-7620, firstname.lastname@example.org, or www.moxietheatre.com