"The Niceties" by Eleanor Burgess - Worcester County Light Opera Company WCLOC - REVIEW

(Cover Photo: Martha Hultgren and Elizabeth Hylton in Eleanor Burgess' "The Niceties". Photo Courtesy of Christopher O'Connor) 

By Kevin T. Baldwin

METRMAG Reviewer

# 774-242-6724

WCLOC’s “The Niceties” takes off the gloves on racial bias

Following the success of WCLOC's in-person run of "The Niceties", WCLOC will be extending (for one week only!) the opportunity to stream their production of "The Niceties" from the comfort of your own home.

To purchase a ticket to stream The Niceties: 
Click here.

"The Niceties" will be available to stream through Wednesday, June 30, 2021, 11:59 pm EST.

WORCESTER - "The Niceties" Presented at Jean McDonough Arts Center's BrickBox, 20 Franklin Street, Worcester, MA 01608. Performances: June 18 & 19 at 8:00pm, June 19 & 20 at 2:00pm. Tickets $22. Special Performances: “The Niceties” is also available to stream at home, during the weekend of production, with the purchase of an online ticket. For tickets visit wcloc.org

Written by Eleanor Burgess. Directed by Eric Butler. Stage managed by Alexis Prosser. Produced by Chuck Grigaitis and Christine Seger. Set Design by Ed Savage. Lighting Design by Emily McCourt. Sound Design by Tom Powers. Costumes by Jo Ann Savage.

Cast Includes: Martha Hultgren and Elizabeth Hylton.

In a much needed return to live theatre, Worcester County Light Opera Company (WCLOC) presents a thought-provoking two-act “The Niceties” by Eleanor Burgess where the conversation about the subject matter extends well beyond the stage and long after the show is over.

In partnership with the Worcester Black History Project and the Worcester Historical Museum, WCLOC advises that audience size will be of limited capacity (as set by the government) and socially distanced with masks required for audience, staff, and crew. The production is supported also by the Worcester Arts Council and Massachusetts Cultural Council.

At an elite East Coast university, an ambitious young black student, Zoe (Elizabeth Hylton), a junior, meets with her respected white female professor, Jeanine (Martha Hultgren), to discuss her “essay” regarding the American Revolution.

At first, it seems, outside of the disparity in their ages, the two women hit it off and appear to be quite similar in that they both maintain strong, intelligent and liberal ideals.

However, what starts off as a simple student-teacher dialogue, quite reminiscent of an “ABC Afterschool Special”, descends into a bitter, “no holds barred” confrontational debate on historical cultural misperceptions and racial misrepresentation, not only by historical authors, but by Jeanine and Zoe, as well.

Topics range from racial inequality to gender bias, class vs. class, morality and more, with Zoe finally accusing her teacher of being a racist.

Neither Hultgren nor Hylton drop the ball in their combined fierce portrayal of the two women. They seem quite at ease with Burgess’ well-constructed albeit sometimes overly conversational dialogue.

Director Eric Butler’s staging is adept at giving the sense of being less in the presence of a debate and more of being at a boxing match, where each opponent is in the fight of their life.

Each opponent leans and jabs, verbally assaulting with unbridled eloquence, presenting arguments admirably and landing multiple blows to the other in the process. And where one seeks a resolution in the end, none really comes.

The set and lighting is quite basic with only a few chairs and bookcases to depict Jeanine’s office. However, not much else is required for the intimate space.

Those of the original “Schoolhouse Rock” generation may recall the old animated television show which played historical cartoons. The animation now seems fairly embarrassing in today’s world. Similarly, those people may also probably remember their school’s history books which may have ended just after the death of JFK.

Those books perpetuated the Columbus myth, excluded entries on Asian internment camps during World War II, glossed over how slave owners established the United States to be a nation free from English oppression, ignored American expansion’s impact on Indigenous Americans, and barely discussed the Civil Rights Movement.

Many of these books, sadly, have not improved over the decades and, to one of Zoe’s many valid points, were written from the perspective of “white men”. But, while Zoe and Jeanine are very good at expressing their own perspectives, they are equally bad at listening to one another as they quarrel.

Thanks to “The Niceties”, long after the last line is spoken there will be post-show deliberations about which character some in the audience might better identify with, Jeanine or Zoe.

There might also be arguments such as how those who are not persons of color can never truly understand the perception of the road traveled in history by persons of color and where that road has brought them to today.

But, at least, the conversation will continue and, after 14 excruciatingly inactive months without live theatre, it is wonderful to be able to engage in such discussions again.

The show runs approximately 2 hours, 15 minutes with a 15 minute intermission.

Kevin T. Baldwin is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA)