“To describe a life is to paraphrase it; and to paraphrase is to set the original aside. Removed from immediate consciousness, a described life is not merely past, not merely an article of memory. It becomes the occasion of a narrative that closes on a heinous injustice, or several; it sacrifices on the altar of abstraction those moments of the living person that were singular and unrepeatable, irreducibly human.” — Darby English*
On our college campuses and in THE NICETIES—the textually rich new play by Eleanor Burgess—the groves of academe are riven with theoretical landmines. At issue onstage at the Geffen Playhouse is the subject of history—how it should be taught and who should do the teaching.
Janine Bosko (Lisa Banes) is a highly regarded professor at an Ivy League university. Convinced that good intentions and steadfast devotion to primary sources shield her from criticism, she meets with one of her students—Zoe (Jordan Boatman)—to discuss her thesis on the American Revolution. Professor Bosko finds the paper intelligently written but fundamentally flawed, too reliant on the subjectivity of its author. For her part, Zoe has determined that, in the hands of her professor, history is an insidious instrument blocking social change.**
This brilliantly performed discourse on representation, identity, and justice versus revenge was directed by Kimberly Senior in a production transferred intact from the Manhattan Theatre Club. Burgess does not insult her audience with easy resolutions, and the debate continued long after the curtain went down.
Through May 12.
10886 Le Conte Avenue, Westwood, Los Angeles.
*Darby English, “Introduction: To Describe a Life,” in To Describe a Life: Notes from the Intersection of Art and Race Terror (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2019), 2.
**The Niceties was inspired by the 2015 Yale Halloween-costume controversy.
The Niceties, Geffen Playhouse, from top: Lisa Banes (left) and Jordan Boatman; Boatman; Banes; Banes and Boatman. Photographs by T. Charles Erickson.