The Niceties Synopsis

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In late March of 2016 at an elite university in the American Northeast, black college junior Zoe Reed, a political science major, meets with her white history professor Janine Bosko to review a draft of a paper that Zoe has written for Janine’s class on revolutions. Janine’s office is full of books and decorated with portraits of famous revolutionaries, including a large painting of George Washington. As she looks at the paper, Janine admires Zoe’s word choice while also critiquing her grammar, pointing out a missing comma and reminding her to use parallel structure in her sentences. Zoe admits that, though she was thoroughly taught parallelism in high school, she did not proofread her draft as well as she normally would have because she had a tough weekend and wanted to get Janine’s feedback before the final deadline. Much to Zoe’s dismay, however, Janine’s comments go beyond grammar. She tells Zoe that the paper could use more flair and encourages her to add details that make the past feel human and real. She pulls out a book and uses an example from South Asian history, telling Zoe a story about a British man sent to overthrow a province in 1843 who alerted the Colonial Office of his victory by using a pun written in Latin. Zoe points out that a joke about colonialism is disturbing, but Janine insists that such a story reveals a lot about history. She uses another example from American history, telling Zoe about the tactics George Washington used to convince the Continental Congress to appoint him as general. Zoe expresses distaste at Janine’s admiration for that moment in history, but Janine doesn’t catch on to her tone. Janine offers Zoe the book on South Asian history to borrow, and she reluctantly accepts.

After critiquing her writing, Janine tells Zoe that her entire argument is fundamentally unsound, and that she should rewrite the paper in full. Janine disagrees with Zoe’s contention that “A successful American Revolution was only possible because of the existence of slavery,” and while Zoe cites details from class that support her theory, much to her dismay, Janine does not accept the thesis since it lacks suitable historical evidence. Zoe points her to a generic online source in her footnotes, but Janine disapproves of her reliance on Internet research. They then argue over the accuracy of Zoe’s assertion that wealthy and poor whites were unified by their mutual interest in preserving slavery. Janine pauses to compliment Zoe on her tenacity and willingness to debate and then changes her mind, telling Zoe to keep her thesis but find and add primary sources to support it. Zoe asserts that she won’t be able to find this kind of proof, because only facts are recorded—not feelings. Janine agrees that Zoe is likely right about enslaved people’s and slaveholders’ opinions on slavery but tells her that history is not based on empathy, but on evidence. Zoe reminds her that some people did not leave evidence behind, either because they were physically unable or did not have the privilege to do so.

Janine encourages Zoe to find sources that support her thesis, but Zoe understands that it may not be possible for her to both assert her argument and please her professor—especially before the looming deadline. Zoe shares that she spent spring break writing the paper and devotes much of her time both on campus and off to organizing and protesting social injustices, which will make it a challenge for her to find time to complete the rewrite Janine requests. Janine does not accept this as an excuse, referring to Zoe’s political activism as “extracurriculars” and telling her to accept the consequences of her decisions. Zoe informs Janine that she hopes to receive a prestigious community and political activism fellowship after graduation, for which she needs a high GPA, but Janine won’t be flexible with her grade. They debate the purposes of higher education: Janine insists that Zoe learn certain research skills, but Zoe believes that she is there to learn about what interests her and to qualify for a job she wants.

Zoe then turns to critiquing Janine’s overall performance as a professor, noting that she commonly mispronounces students’ names and doesn’t ask for their gender pronouns. Janine does not see these as significant issues and explains why she handles issues of identity in class as she does. Zoe responds by telling Janine that these actions makes her unfit to be a teacher. When Janine tries to argue with her, Zoe points out Janine’s ignorance of how her words can impact her students (especially her students of color), using Janine’s story about colonialism in India as an example of her thoughtlessness. She then pulls out her notebook from class and shows Janine that she has taken note of every insensitive comment her professors have made that semester, including many made by Janine. Janine and Zoe continue to argue about their differing perspectives; while Janine admits that she is far from perfect, when Zoe asks her to add more black history to her syllabus, she doesn’t see its relevance to her curriculum. Zoe continues to repeat offensive quotes from class to Janine, but Janine defends them, not understanding the trauma that Zoe tells her she experiences. Eventually, Janine tells Zoe to “get over” slavery because it didn’t happen to her, and that there are other, more contemporary issues that should upset Zoe. Moreover, Janine tells Zoe that if she continues to proceed through life with this negative outlook, she will not succeed in life, because, according to Janine, “everyone is tired of hearing about racism.”

Zoe picks up her phone and shows Janine that she has been recording their conversation, which is legal in their jurisdiction. Janine insists that she has not said anything wrong, and that she is not a racist, but she tells Zoe to delete the recording nevertheless. When Zoe demands that Janine admit that she is a racist and announces that she intends to release the entire recording to the public, Janine lunges at her and tries to grab her phone, injuring herself in the process. However, it’s too late—Zoe has published the recording online.

About a month later, Zoe returns to Janine’s office, where the portrait of George Washington has been removed. Janine has been expecting her, and she starts their conversation by apologizing to Zoe, telling her that she did not even try to understand her feelings or listen to her in their first conversation. Zoe talks about the viral response to the recording, including articles and protests, and laments that she does not feel like a person anymore due to the way she has been picked apart in the media. Zoe apologizes if the events have caused personal or familial problems for Janine, but Janine says she is grateful for Zoe’s actions, because they refreshed her perspective on privilege and her practice as a scholar. Despite this, her tenure is under review by the university, she has been suspended without pay, publication of her upcoming book has been postponed indefinitely, she has been dismissed from her political consulting work, and her son is barely speaking to her. Zoe has received death threats and reports that she does not leave her room much anymore, not even to go to class—she has taken an incomplete for the semester.

In response, Janine proposes that she and Zoe release a joint statement of amicability, saying that Janine is grateful for how Zoe made her aware of issues in both her teaching and the field. Janine tells Zoe she can include anything she wants and that the statement would be a good step forward for her, since releasing the recording may impair her future employment prospects. Zoe expresses to Janine that she wants to make concrete changes that have meaning, so she suggests that they propose a resource center for underprivileged students on campus, with therapists, tutors, advisors, and financial aid assistance that takes their identities and backgrounds into account. Janine adds to this by suggesting that they call upon the university to divest from for-profit prisons, and Zoe takes it a step further, calling for a decolonized curriculum across the entire university and a wholly inclusive and diverse admissions policy within five years. Zoe’s proposals for institutional change grow more and more radical. Janine starts to push back, but Zoe tells her that she doesn’t have the right to do so. Janine insists that Zoe’s goals are unrealistic and her tactics are off-putting, maintaining that they must wait for democracy to take its course. Zoe suggests that democracy doesn’t work, especially when it comes to advocating for those in the minority.

Spoiler alert! If you would like to read what happens next in the story and how the play ends, click here.


January 11–February 10, 2019

The Niceties

By Eleanor Burgess
Directed by Kimberly Senior

Discussions of grammar and Google between a professor and student turn to race and reputation. And before they know it, they’re in dangerous territory, facing stunning implications that can’t be undone.