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Now More Than Ever, Listen.

By Cristina Marie Pla-Guzman

 

Why stand at the end of the abyss and shout at the top of your lungs? It doesn’t matter if no one is listening.

This fall Milwaukee Repertory Theater will challenge its audiences with The Niceties by Eleanor Burgess. The biggest challenge- just listen. If no one ever disagrees with you, does that mean you are right? No, of course not! That is why going to the theater and exposing yourself to conflicting ideas is essential.

The Niceties implores us to widen our circle of understanding. Even if the characters never really listen to each other, the audience can. The Niceties can be a way for audiences to engage with deep questions, and hopefully, take note before reaching their own conclusions. Who gets to tell the story of America?

It is easy to want to tune out all the noise in this political climate, which is fraught with conflict. However, this is not a time to distance yourself from the discourse. Now is the time to think deeply. Listen first and then debate. Rather than watch the play to prove your point of view, open your mind and challenge the ways you have always done things.

We need a play like The Niceties. The Director, Annika Boras, has a big job on her hands and is excited to meet the challenge. "What draws me to this script is that we are in a cultural moment right now in which our history and what it represents is being contested. This script, rather than giving any answers, proposes the question."

Director Annika Boras speaks with actress Kate Levy.

The Niceties takes place in 2016, the last year of the Barack Obama administration. Although Donald Trump isn't mentioned, the presence of his administration hangs over the play. Zoe, played by Kimber Sprawl, is a 20-year-old high-achieving black political science student in her junior year at "an Ivy League University in the Northeast." Janine, played by Kate Levy, a white professor in her early 60s, meets with Zoe during office hours to provide feedback on a paper, which details the effects of slavery on the American Revolution. At the heart of the story is the experience of a black student in a predominately white institution. As both women's argument reaches a fever pitch, the play exposes racial and generational divides between both perspectives.

Boras welcomes the challenge of creating two fully realized characters and their different perspectives. "My job as a director is to make these two characters live as authentically as possible on stage. The audience gets the experience of witnessing a conversation where no audience member feels implicated in the conversation. From the comfort of their dark seats, they can observe and welcome these perhaps new perspectives which they had never thought of before or weren’t aware of."

Both women consider themselves on the right side of history, yet they are disconnected not only by racial but also generational divides.  Janie thought that as a female and a liberal, she was progressive. She can see herself standing on the right side of the argument, but she can't see where she is guilty of some the same things she detests.

Zoe chooses not to do further research and prefers to get a "good grade" then spend more time trying to argue her point. While she makes an excellent point by highlighting the dominance of white perspectives within American education, Zoe fights for the views of the students of color.

Director Annika Boras with cast members Kate Levy and Kimber Sprawl.

A true credit to Burgess is that The Niceties doesn't come to an easy conclusion for the audience wrapped up with a bow on top. It challenges you to two conflicting truths. Whether you agree or disagree with them, the piece allows you to hear them. Ultimately the truth is somewhere in between the two, and the audience is left to piece it together. So what does Boras wish for the audience? "I want them to receive both people. I want them to be accessible to the audience regardless of their predispositions or unconscious bias. I don’t want to sugarcoat the play either. I hope that Zoe, the girl you wish you were friends with in college, and Janine, the teacher that you wish you had, will be received by all audience members."

This play provides a jumping-off point for people to engage with issues we are all grappling with now. For that alone, it’s a play well worth viewing. It’s time to come together and say where do we go from here? What do we do now?

Cristina Marie Pla-Guzman is a Miami-based theatre critic, performer, director and theatre educator. She was named the 2016 Kennedy Center’s Stephen Sondheim Inspirational Teacher and is a 2019 fellow of the O’Neill Theatre Center’s National Critics Institute and Theatre Communications Group’s Rising Leader of Color for Theatre Journalism. She is a freelance writer and has worked with American Theatre Magazine and as Miami’s contributing editor for Broadway World.