By Nina Richards
Zoe is a bright and bold liberal arts college student enrolled in a class on the American Revolution. When she goes in to see her professor, Janine, to discuss an assignment, what ensues is a rich debate between a black student and an older white professor that touches on a wide range of issues.
The Niceties closes out The Heritage Theatre Festival’s 45th season. It’s “an office hours meeting you’ll never forget,” says director Kathy Williams, who sees this production as a microcosm of the ideological tensions displayed on a daily basis in the United States. Every member of the audience can find an entry point, an opportunity to recognize themselves on the spectrum between Zoe and Janine—student and professor, with similar goals for the country, carrying with them very different visions for how those goals should be achieved.
The women’s divergent perspectives are fed by their different races, generations, views on what feminism and womanhood mean, and on who’s stories get told. To add fuel to the fire, the debaters often speak right past each other. But though these are heated topics, the conversation offers twists and turns, humor, and surprising takes from both sides.
The cast of two—Nikyla Boxley, who plays Zoe, and Christine Morris, who plays Janine—had only two weeks to learn their lines and rehearse for the opening on August 2. (This is traditional for Heritage Theatre Festival’s summer season.) Boxley and Morris agree that a cast this small and preparation this condensed make for a unique experience.
“I like when a play isn’t too technical,” Boxley says “It allows you to be these human beings who are flawed, who are right, and who are wrong. I have so much fun playing in this world every day.”
Morris praises playwright Eleanor Burgess. “A good script is always easier to learn, and this one is wonderful,” she says.
Dialogue drives The Niceties. Zoe and Janine are the only two characters, and the script is densely packed with interruptions, shared words, and historical references. Learning the huge volume of lines has been one of the trickiest parts for the actors. In addition, there’s no downtime on stage. The spotlight is on Boxley and Morris the entire time, pressing them to stay present and on their toes. It’s heavy lifting for both actors, and they say they’ve developed a partnership to manage it together.
It helps that the cast members and director knew one another before the production began. The director, Williams, has worked with Morris before, and thought of her for the role of the professor, Janine. And Morris, herself a professor at the University of North Carolina College of Visual and Performing Arts, remembered seeing a stellar performance from Boxley when she was just a freshman.
Members of the production wonder if the Charlottesville audience might find special connections to the show. Some people might connect with the characters as members of the University community. Many will recognize one of the play’s central questions: Should we judge history by the standards of the present? The characters debate whether men like Thomas Jefferson should be considered great men of their time, regardless of the continuing effects of their racism. Should these men’s opinions be the ones we use to understand the past? How should we talk about these men, who are celebrated for their role in creating our democracy, but culpable in one of the country’s ugliest legacies?
At one point in the play, Zoe accuses Janine of “reading the children’s book version of American history.” Watching The Niceties may cause the audience members to question their own version of the past.
Eleanor Burgess’ The Niceties is in production at the Heritage Theatre Festival through August 11.