‘The Niceties’ is skilled lens into current conversations about race

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Set in March 2016 at Yale University, Shotgun Players’ production of “The Niceties” is a two-person show tracking the conversations between Janine (Scarlett Hepworth), a white history professor, and her Black student Zoe (Regina Monique), who initially goes to Janine’s office hours seeking help on her paper. Through the lens of Zoe’s own experiences, the show elegantly provides firsthand insight into the microaggressions that students of color, particularly Black students, receive in predominantly white institutions of higher education. The cast and creative team excellently handle the timely subject matter, providing abundant means for audience digestion and discussion of the material despite the production’s Zoom format. 

After a few awkward moments and inappropriate jokes from Janine, Zoe feels obligated to record their conversation, which is later leaked to the public and forms the play’s first act. Notably, the recording includes the professor’s admission that she is racist and has historically served her white students better than her BIPOC ones, crafting her teaching under the assumption that her audience is predominantly white. The second act then follows a personal conversation between the two in the aftermath of the release of the audio recording, including the professor’s attempts to do better, but her ultimate inability to reach any sort of reconciliation with Zoe. 

Masterfully written, directed and acted, “The Niceties” challenges audiences to examine their existing biases and discomforts and to look beyond the standard definition of what racism can mean, especially in an educational setting. Both of the lead characters are undeniably complex, allowing for a story about an inflammatory scandal to be seen in a more personal manner instead of just a news headline. Monique is particularly passionate, yet vulnerable in her portrayal of Zoe: She showcases the legitimate and repeated frustrations she feels while acting like a fully dimensional human being, rather than just a conglomeration of experiences the play wishes to represent. 

Hepworth also excels as Janine, as she slowly transitions the conversations from simple unease to harmful microaggressions, to blatantly telling her student to “get over” slavery. It is also interesting to note that Janine is revealed to have a wife, proving that even those belonging to other marginalized groups are not immune to their own biases about race. Whether intentional or not, their behaviors can often perpetuate racism and contribute to the oppression of BIPOC. Hepworth plays the scene of this admission well in particular. Both actresses never falter and keep a natural banter going throughout both acts, beautifully immersing the audience in their conversation as if it were happening in real time.

Fortunately, the production’s Zoom format only enhanced the audience’s viewing experience, often making the two-person show more intimate than it originally could have been on a larger stage, and allowing audiences to feel like a fly on the wall in the professor’s office. In this innovative format, Shotgun Players encouraged audience participation and interaction at every moment, preserving the necessary connection between audience members and the performance itself. Before the show, audiences were encouraged to use the Zoom chat feature to discuss misinformation they had learned in a history class, and after the show, members of the audience were placed in various racial affinity groups to discuss their impressions of the show’s difficult subject matter in the context of their identities and in a safe space of peers. This allowed for audience members, specifically those who were white, to discuss their own reactions to the show and to work through feelings of shock or discomfort.

While it is unfortunate that live theater cannot happen in the current health crisis, Shotgun Players did not let the pandemic stop them from providing an impactful and fulfilling audience experience, only letting the online format enhance the subject matter. 

Above all, the production seems to point to future success for online theater productions with Shotgun Players. The company has made the virtual transition perceivably seamlessly, taking on relevant yet challenging subject matter in this play with ease in the virtual format.

Contact Caitlin Keller at [email protected].