In 2015, as Eleanor Burgess watched a firestorm erupt at Yale University, her alma mater, over an e-mail urging students to avoid wearing racially or ethnically offensive Halloween costumes, the Brookline-born playwright was struck by the dysfunctional nature of the conversations she was observing online.
The e-mail had prompted a response from a Yale professor who worried about the consequences on free speech and argued that students should navigate these questions for themselves rather than ceding control to administrators. The debate exploded into a wider discussion about how students of color felt that Yale could sometimes be a hostile place for them.
Burgess watched conversations among her own groups of friends — on social media and in e-mail and text message threads — devolve into acrimony and recrimination.
“People who were on the student protesters’ sides acted as if there was no reasonable concern over academic freedom of speech and the freedom to make a mistake and apologize for it. And then the people who were on the professor’s side acted as if there’s nothing wrong with Yale, that there were no issues of racism and power on campus, and that students are just being whiny and coddled. People took everything very personally and got very agitated,” she says.
“Because I think it’s too difficult to admit that, yes, we’re talking about two really important values, and they’re in opposition, and we have to try to thread that needle. That’s such a complicated place to live in, and no one wants to live in a complicated place.”
The blow-up prompted Burgess to write “The Niceties,” which will receive its world premiere from the Huntington Theatre Company at the Calderwood Pavilion Aug. 31-Oct. 6. The production will then move to the Manhattan Theatre Club in New York and the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, N.J.
The plot of “The Niceties” doesn’t center on Halloween costumes, and the characters aren’t based on any real-life people. Instead, the two-character drama, set in the spring of 2016, centers on a black student, Zoe (Jordan Boatman), and a 60-something white female history professor, Janine (Lisa Banes), who meet to discuss Zoe’s paper about the impact of slavery on the American Revolution. Their discussion quickly turns from the arguments and ideas contained in Zoe’s work into an explosive confrontation about broader cultural and historical concerns involving race in America, white privilege, and power imbalances on college campuses.
Washington Post critic Peter Marks dubbed it “scintillating” and “a barnburner of play” after a workshop production at the Contemporary American Theater Festival in 2017. Buzz about the play grew, with Burgess receiving inquiries and phone calls from members of Congress, religious leaders, and educators across the country.
The imbroglio at Yale made Burgess, a former high school history teacher, realize that smart, educated, and well-meaning Americans couldn’t talk to each other about race. “I started to believe that we actually disagree much more than we think we do. Like two people stand up and say, ‘I’m not racist. I’m against racism. I want to fight racism in America.’ Actually, that does not mean that they agree about what racism is, or about how you fix it, or about how you talk about it, or about what’s causing it, or about its history or how bad it is.”
The 2016 presidential election further exposed deep fissures below the surface. And the political disagreements aren’t just between the left and right. Burgess feels that our differences have only gotten worse, and no one is talking to each other about them.
Which could make the staging of her play so thrilling, and potentially incendiary. “Both characters are saying things that, I think, a lot of people today wouldn’t say out loud anymore. That doesn’t mean those beliefs have gone away. People have learned to keep their opinions to themselves. So what you see happening right now is people all insisting that they agree but secretly disagreeing. And there’s a mess that gets made by that.”
That’s the advantage of having the debate unfold on stage, where audience members are not taking part in the conversation directly. “You’re not personally being attacked, and you don’t have to think of a next thing to say. So you can actually hear the entire conversation and just let it wash over you. Which means that you can finally hear ideas that would be too painful to hear if they were being said at you.”
In the stage directions, Burgess cautions directors and actors to “resist the temptation to think of only one of [the characters] as the mouthpiece for the truth.” Indeed, both women have considerable blind spots. “I’d say also they both struggle with gray area,” adds director Kimberly Senior, who directed Ayad Akhtar’s “Disgraced” on Broadway. “For Janine, it’s either a fact or not a fact. And with Zoe, it’s more along the lines of morally right and morally wrong.”
Says Boatman, who plays Zoe, “In today’s current climate, I think there’s a lot of sadness, confusion and anger, which are all valid emotions. I deal with them every day as well. But I think this play begs the question of how do you set that aside and make that anger, sadness, fear, or confusion useful? How do you channel that into something where you are then effecting a change?”
Though she didn’t start writing plays until after she graduated from Yale, Burgess has been coming to the shows at the Huntington since she was 12 years old. In 2011, she landed the Huntington’s playwriting fellowship and has developed her work in its summer workshop program. So it was fitting for the Huntington to produce the world premiere of “The Niceties.”
“This was the first real theatrical institution that gave me a big ‘yes.’ To have an institution that you love, that has meant so much to you, tell you that they like your play and ask you to write another one is exactly what you need when you’re just starting out as a writer,” she says. “So it’s just an unimaginable dream come true to be part of the Huntington season.” (Her play “Chill,” about a group of friends from Brookline, was produced at Merrimack Repertory Theatre in 2017.)
She also felt that the Huntington — and Boston — was an ideal fit stylistically for the premiere of a play of ideas.
In some ways, Burgess says, “The Niceties” is asking fundamental questions that go to the heart of the nation’s history and identity. “It’s a play about, like, what is America? It feels like it takes so much brain and heart and empathy and so much work to say something right enough about this country,” she says. “Every time I sit down to work on it, I think, do I really have it in me to do that?”
Presented by the Huntington Theatre Company. At Wimberly Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, Aug. 31-Oct. 6. Tickets: From $25, 617-266-0800, www.huntingtontheatre.org