In a state of self-policing and hypervigilance, ‘The Niceties’ shows who actually holds the power: disenfranchised students

The Niceties

Through March 27, Riverside Theatre, Iowa City, $15-35

Jody Hovland and Crystal Marie Stewart in Eleanor Burgess’ ‘The Niceties.’ — Rob Merritt / Riverside Theatre

Not five minutes into The Niceties by Eleanor Burgess, running in the lush new home of Riverside Theatre, I laugh-snort at something Crystal Marie Stewart says — something I’ll continue to do all night. It is then that I write a note that I will circle several times throughout the rest of the evening when I feel dagger-sharp stares from the audience-in-the-round:

The white people in this room are not laughing at this joke.

I see The Niceties on opening night: March 12, 2022. This is only one long nap after I make my way down to the Pentacrest to support students in the Iowa City Community School District who have organized a walkout to protest the signing of House File 2416 into law. I overhear some white trans children say to each other that “yeah, black lives matter, but there’s other important stuff too.” I wince quietly, and make sure that when I am handed the megaphone, I say that transphobia and white supremacy work hand-in-hand: There are no non-white women in that picture with Kim Reynolds.

The kids whoop and holler, and I walk home with slices of pizza they gave me. I pass two English professors of mine, both of whom likely know that I am in the process of a formal Title IX investigation against the department chair. We make brief chitchat about how good it is to see queer kids able to know who they are so young, let alone stand up for themselves. I go home and take a PRN anti-anxiety pill.

The Niceties is exactly the kind of show that people in our region’s theater community need to see right now. I might venture to say, quite so boldly, that it’s the kind of show everyone needs to see right now — particularly white people who call themselves progressive. Every time I think I’m ahead of Burgess’ script, the narrative whips back around with a bite stronger than its bark.

Crystal Marie Stewart and Jody Hovland in Eleanor Burgess’ ‘The Niceties.’ — Rob Merritt / Riverside Theatre

Jody Hovland is terrifying as Janine Bosko: posturing power over the set of her office in bright, blood red pants, a pashmina draped around her shoulder and a dazzling crystal brooch that reflects crisp white light wherever she points it. The props that flesh out Janine Bosko’s office make me smirk as I take notes after the show: a framed photo of Nelson Mandela next to Hillary Clinton’s biography, Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton. That one gets a full belly-laugh out of me. A Sony micro HiFi CMT-NE3 overlooking a tea table. I check to see what tea is poured in the second act: Lemon Lift.

While Hovland masterfully terrorizes the stage, Stewart sits quietly for a good portion of the play while she holds all the power in the room: She knows it, and so do I. Clad in earth-tones and backpack, Stewart packs her punches and plays her cards at all the right moments. There is so much delicious satisfaction by the end of the play when Stewart languishes and drapes herself over the professor’s chair, which the audience comes to learn could use more lumbar support.

Throughout Bosko’s incessant pleas to be absolved of her wrongs against her Black student, Stewart’s Zoe Reed is quicker on the draw than most of the audience is. About halfway through the first act, Stewart’s character takes out her phone and says she’s texting a friend, before setting the phone face down on the desk. I make a note, and I am proved right later on: Connecticut in late March 2016, the picturesque landscape of white progressivism that The Niceties plays out on, is a one-party consent state for recording. I wonder if the members in the audience who are shocked by this narrative “twist” are aware that Iowa in 2022 is also a one-party consent state. (I learned this when I was 17 and was accused of libel and slander for posting a poem on Facebook about my abuser. I learned this because my abuser is a lawyer.)

In the second act, Hovland grovels so obviously for Stewart’s forgiveness, in the hopes that they can work together to write a joint statement to release publicly: Hovland’s character is actually trying to make sure her tenure (which is under review) is reinstated. She says she’s working on a new chapter for her book that will be “a comparative study of the role of minority populations in revolutions.” I snort-laugh again, thinking of the end of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, when the district commissioner thinks to himself that the hanging man in the tree (tribal chief Okonkwo, who has hung himself) could probably provide enough material for a chapter before deciding that a chapter is probably too much: a “reasonable paragraph” would be best since “one must be firm in cutting out details.”

Director Curtis M. Jackson says it perfectly in his director’s note: Attending this play “may require you to acknowledge this play isn’t solely about the American cultural topics discussed, but is also about your involvement, or lack thereof with these topics.” I read Jackson’s director’s note and smile as a sense of relief and solidarity washes over me: Curtis Jackson is a mixed Asian kid in the Midwest, just like me.

Crystal Marie Stewart in Eleanor Burgess’ ‘The Niceties.’ — Rob Merritt / Riverside Theatre

Later on in the play, Hovland’s Bosko attempts to enter into a game of “oppression Olympics”: The audience learns that Bosko and her parents fled a war-torn Poland, and that she realized she was a lesbian during second wave feminism. Burgess’ play could easily fall into a narrative trap weighing who has struggled more and therefore who deserves validation in their feelings. The minute I almost endeavor to sympathize with Bosko, she shows her true colors again. We learn that she has been a poor mother to her son because of her intense ideas of gender essentialism (she wanted a daughter).

She also comes back with a threat that I personally feel right to the core: One of Reed’s former teachers has reached out to tell Bosko that her student took a month of off junior year of high school due to mental health reasons. I clutch at the jade necklace my bà nội bought for me back in Việt Nam before she died. I was discharged from the hospital just two days earlier because of suicidal ideation. I went through this same thing for the first time when I was 14, a sophomore in high school. From now until then, I have had teachers use the same threat that Bosko levies against Reed in this final fight: “Do you trust my colleagues to agree with you instead of me? The same ones who you say look at you like a bomb that’s about to go off?”

Those of us with ethnic and racial ties to the global South are watching quietly right now as an America that was all too happy to deny refugees from Middle East Asia scrambles to bring in Ukrainians. White people love to say that isn’t about politics, but non-white people have known the truth since whatever moment they realized they weren’t white: In a post-9/11 world, every decision a non-white person makes in America is about respectability politics. For some of us who inhabit even more disenfranchised intersections of identity (whether we are queer, trans, disabled, religiously persecuted, low socioeconomic status, etc.), the best option isn’t even just to sit still and shut up: Sometimes it’s to join arms with our oppressors.

As a second-generation American whose grandmother barely got out of South Vietnam, I know all too well the game of the Model Minority; I was treated white my entire life until the moments it behooved white people to tokenize me. I grew up so pale that I was nearly translucent. That didn’t stop kids from spitting at me and calling me racial slurs.

The Niceties is a love letter — a screeching swan song to every non-white kid out there who had to make a choice far too young to either bite their tongue or speak their mind and be called scary by white people. It is a rallying anthem to remind us that we need not live in the margins any longer. We are not footnotes in the experiment of the American Dream: our survival in the face of white supremacy is more of an American Dream than too many white people would ever allow themselves to fathom. This play is for us.

And if the white people who come to see it learn something, that’s good too.

But if they don’t?

That’s not something I’m paid to give a fuck about.