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Wednesday, February 19, 2020
‘The Niceties’-A Powder Keg of a Play
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“The Niceties” was praised by the New York Times as a “bristling, provocative play about race and privilege in the United States.”
 
Wednesday, February 12, 2020
 

BY KAREN BOSSICK

It starts out as a college paper on the American Revolution. But it turns into a war of words, a tussle of minds.

And discussions of syntax and grammar—the niceties, if you will—quickly force a college professor and her student onto dangerous turf regarding race relations, racism, institutional racism and white supremacy.

You can watch it all unfold when Company of Fools presents “The Niceties,” a searing work by playwright Eleanor Burgess. The play opens Wednesday, Feb. 19, and runs through Saturday, March 7, at The Liberty Theatre in Hailey.

Never mind its name. It’s “a powder keg of a play,” says Scott Palmer, producing artistic director of Company of Fools and director of this play.

“The play is very timely in a polarized culture where truth and facts are constantly questioned and where one person’s perspective can easily become another person’s trigger,” he adds. “There are no easy answers here, but the questions that are raised by the play are crucial for everyone to consider.”

The play is set at an East Coast university in the twilight of Obama's presidency, as the possibility of a Trump administration and all that that means looms in the background.

Alexis Ulrich, who appeared in the Fool’s last production of “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley,” plays the black student who is bent on preserving her stellar grade point average. Claudia McCain, who has starred in countless plays in the Sun Valley area, plays her older white female professor.

On the surface, the two women have a lot in common. Both are liberal, both women and both brilliant. But their differences, including that of being of different generations, means they see things very, very differently.

And Professor Bosko surprises Zoe by challenging her to prove that the premise of her paper isn’t wrong.

Burgess, a graduate of Yale University, wrote “The Niceties” in the wake of protests at Yale in November 2015 after the university’s Intercultural Affairs urged students not to wear Halloween costumes that were “culturally unaware and insensitive.”

When a lecturer encouraged students to wear what they like, accusing administrators of censorship, students demanded the administration be more proactive about supporting minority students. Their protest soon prompted a tense national debate about free speech, racial insensitivity and cultural appropriation on other college campuses.

The play prompted McCain do a lot of research about discrimination and the other issues contained within.

“The play is so dense it asks you to look at yourself and what you do know,” she says. “And you realize the list of peoples whose history, whose stories, are not represented in our history, including Asian, Native Americans and Polynesian.”

Palmer agrees.

“I think about how little I know even about the history of Hawaiians, whose state is one of the United States,” he says. “I have learned a lot about the Native Americans who were in the area through (an exhibit recently showcased at the Sun Valley Historical Museum). But I don’t know if I would’ve taken the time to discover it on my own. It’s not that I’m ignoring it—it’s just invisible.”

Palmer said the Fools are thrilled to be able to stage “The Niceties” right now as one of the last theater companies to get the rights to do so before access became restricted to make way for a major production of the play.

“These conversations are happening in high school, coffee shops and wine bars as people ask: Who gets to tell the story of America? Who are we? And where did we come from?” he said. “When someone says, ‘What about my history?’ I say, ‘Yeah, what don’t I know?’ This play does a beautiful job of exploring the stakes.”

Ulrich says Burgess does an incredible job of addressing such issues with her dialogue.

“It’s so conversational,” she said. “And it made me take a look at how I often fight for African-American causes, not considering other populations like the Latinx community. If you want true equality, you’ve got to consider everyone.”

The Fools have partnered with United Vision for Idaho, a nonprofit organization focused on social justice and economic fairness, to provide talk-backs after two student matinee performances and the public matinee performance on March 1.

IF YOU GO

WHAT: “The Niceties”

WHEN: Wednesday-Saturday, Feb. 19-22; Wednesday-Sunday, Feb. 26-March 1; Wednesday-Saturday March 4-7. All shows start at 7:30 p.m. except for the Feb. 21 opening night at 6:45 p.m., the Sunday, March 1, 3 p.m. matinee and a Saturday, March 7 matinee at 3p.m.

WHERE: Liberty Theatre in Hailey

TICKETS: Tickets: $35 for members of the Sun Valley Museum of Art, $40 for nonmembers, $35 for seniors 62 and over, $15 for students with ID, $35 for members of a group of eight or more and $24 for Second Night 24 on Thursday, Feb. 20. Available online at www.sunvalleycenter.org, by phone at 208-578-9122 or at the theater box office from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays or in the hour leading up to the performance.

SPECIAL DEALS: Wednesday, Feb. 19, is a Pay What you Feel Preview; Thursday, Feb. 20, a Throwback Thursday preview, which costs $24 in honor of the Company of Fools’ 24th season. Educator Night on Saturday, Feb. 22, offers two $15 tickets to educators and school administrators. There also is a Parent & Baby Pay What You Feel Matinee on Saturday, March 7.

The 10 front-row seats are $10 each for each performance. And groups of eight are entitled to $35 tickets each.

OPENING NIGHT on Friday, Feb. 21, includes a 20-minute pre-show lecture by Producing Artistic Director Scott Palmer, followed by a 10-minute question and answer and a post-show opening night reception.

DATE NIGHT on Saturday, Feb. 22, offers a pre-show Happy Half Hour with discounted wine, beer and bubbly, deals at local partner restaurants and a chance to win prizes.

BACKSTAGE TOUR & POST SHOW CHAT BACK at 3 p.m. Sunday, March 1, includes a chance to chat with the artists and creative staff and enjoy a behind-the-scenes tour of the design elements that went into creating the show.

PARENT & BABY PAY WHAT YOU FEEL MATINEE at 3 p.m. Saturday, March 7, is a chance for parents and their young children to attend together. The theater will be set up to accommodate the little ones—and the babies get in free.

PHOTO

“The Niceties” was praised by the New York Times as a “bristling, provocative play about race and privilege in the United States.” PHOTO: Kirsten Shultz

 

 

 

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