Monday, September 21, 2020

 "The Niceties": Celebrating Sixteen Years of Plays By Women in Celebration of Women.

Congrats to Moxie Theatre on the opening of its sweet sixteenth season. No easy fete this, in the middle of a pandemic where theatres are closed to audience participation and involvement. 

Now the actors must rehearse through zoom and other creative measures. After final rehearsals the actors and necessary staff come together shortly before shooting the film version of the staged play.  Before this show begins, there is a short documentary as to how its all done.

This seems to be the norm so far as theatres getting their audiences as close to being there as not. By using this device, director Delicia Turner Sonnenberg managed to present to audiences a thoughtful, dramatic, informative and sometimes tense  production of "The Niceties" by Eleanor Burgess. 

Deja Fields and Mouchette val Helsdingen

"The Niceties" is a relative new play. It was developed at the Contemporary American Theatre Festival in Shepherdstown, West Virginia in 2017 and made its world premiere during the 2018-19 season in a co-production with the Huntington Theatre Company. 

Burgess studied History at Yale College. “The events in “The Niceties” are based on her own experiences and the clashes over diversity on the Yale campus. 

The play is as contemporary as BLM and racial discrimination in Ivy League Schools, though it has a history lesson that dates back further than 1619/The 1619 Project, perhaps in the 1500’s when the first slaves, about 350, were brought to American shores in Virginia by Portuguese and Spanish slave ships. 

When we first meet our two protagonists Janine, (Mouchette val Helsdingen) and Zoe (Deja Fields) in Janine’s office at an ‘elite university' in the Northeast, Zoe is waiting for American History professor Janine to read over and correct her grammar and historical content of the first draft of her history thesis. Zoe is fine with the grammatical corrections but not so much the corrections about her historical findings. (“I’m afraid you’re in for a substantial rewrite”)  Her paper , “A Successful American revolution was only possible because of slavery”.  Janine off handedly remarks it’s “one of the more imaginative ideas I’ve seen”.

If you weren’t already suspicious of this two hander, Zoe is an African American undergraduate student most likely from privilege and Janine is, well, white and tenured and from a generation ago where Blacks were told to be patient and not make waves.  We learn that she worked her way up the ranks with many publications.  She comes from a modest background, a child of working class parents, is gay, married with a grown, university student, and a son with whom she is estranged. 

It’s a setup that's able to segue deep into discussions of racism, sexism, diversity, privilege, power and the toxicity that permeates this country today. It was even more so when the play was written three years ago. It’s amazing what a change in administration can bring. 

As you might imagine the women duke it on just about every level of political discourse, from when the first slaves were brought to our shores to Googling history, to actually reading about it in hard covered books, to George Washington, the American Revolution, to the abolishment of slavery and what version of history you choose to see in the history books. 

When the volume of disagreements rises, and the combatents are ready for for the kill, all bets are off; all the niceties are left at the back door. And…unbeknownst to Janine, Zoe taped their conversations and posted them on line.  They went viral. In so doing it not only exposed Janine causing the end of her tenure, but put Zoe on notice that she too has ruined her chances of getting her dream job. 

In director Turner-Sonnenberg's deft hands and with some pretty compelling acting, each would earn high grades from this retired kindergarten teacher turned theatre reviewer. Watching the exchange of ideas was like watching a tennis match with the energy toggling from one woman to the other with whip-lash accuracy. At times I found myself rooting for one over the other and then vice versa. 

Both women are up to the task. Deja Fields’ Zoe is sure of herself, rather smug and is as confident in herself as the day is long. Mouchette van Helsdingen’s Janine shows a condescending side at the outset but soon realizes she might have met her  match. They take each other on like the dueling divas, but in the end, there are no winners no losers just differences of opinions. You might find yourselves like yours truly, yearning for discussion, which there was after the performance. 

It takes a village to make a production like “The Niceties” work.  The whole was carefully orchestrated and filmed by Canis Lupus Productions.

The all-female and non-binary Design and Production Team includes: Set Design, Julie Lorenz; Costume Design; Faith James; Lighting Design, Cynthia Bloodgood; Sound Design, Mason Pilvesky; Properties, Angela Ynfante; Stage Management, Beonica Bullard; Photos curtesy Moxie Theartre; Assistant Director, Vanessa Duran. 

“The Niceties,” the filmed version from Moxie Theatre, can be viewed through Oct. 4

Showtimes are 7 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday; added 2 p.m. performances Sept. 21-24. .
Tickets ($35 per household, with discounts available) . Phone 858-598-7620 or

Running time: 2 hrs., 45 min.

Of her work, Burgess says, “I write to understand things, I write about things that confuse me, I write about things that trouble me, topics where I really thought I knew what I believed and then someone said something that shook me down to my core and all of sudden I realize that maybe I don’t know what I believe.” 

See you on Zoom at the theatre.


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