Two plays onstage right now, “The Niceties” at the Geffen Playhouse and “Native Son” at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, are strikingly different and yet connected via the thread of race. “The Niceties” is set in recent times at an Ivy League university in the office of a privileged white professor who confronts a privileged, ambitious black student; “Native Son” takes place in Chicago’s racially segregated, poverty stricken South Side in the 1930s, where a black chauffeur works for a rich white family that owns the rat-infested tenement where he and his family live.
The characters couldn’t be more different: Janine Bosko (Lisa Banes) the white history professor of American Revolution on the verge of tenure and Zoe Reed (Jordan Boatman), a brilliant black student on the verge of graduation and an uncertain future.
And in “Native Son,” based on Richard Wright’s classic American novel, Bigger Thomas (Jon Chaffin) is a young black man so oppressed by the racist society around him that in his own mind—and in reality—he becomes the very thing that society fears most: a murderous black criminal. The play departs from the book with the addition of a character, “The Black Rat” (Noel Arthur) who as his alter ego, espouses Bigger’s internal thoughts and state of mind.
THE NICETIES: IDEOLOGY AND POLITICS
In “The Niceties,” Janine and Zoe meet in Janine’s office to discuss Zoe’s essay, whose thesis is that the American Revolution could not have happened without privileged whites depending on unwilling slaves. Janine defends democracy as humanity’s greatest achievement, and idolizes George Washington, whose portrait (along with Che Guevara, Nelson Mandela and other revolutionaries) hangs on her wall, and she defends historical accuracy in the form of the written record.
Zoe points out that black slaves were not taught to read or write, so their record comes through the whites who owned them. Zoe’s future dream is to be an activist, which she has been throughout her college career. Janine is on the cusp of publishing a new book and getting tenure. Zoe needs a good grade to get a fellowship to pursue her dreams but Janine stands in her way, defending scholarly research over “feelings,” which is what she believes motivates Zoe’s position.
The conversation quickly spins out of control; both unintended and actual condescension on Janine’s part rubs Zoe the wrong way, setting her off. Their point-counterpoint arguments each have merit, but is there a single answer to any of the issues they raise? They each make points that can be defended or rebutted; but one holds the power over the other—until harsh words are spoken and the stakes are raised and now it’s a stalemate.
Who’s to be admired: Janine, with her academic credibility for insisting that scholarly work requires more than just a “feeling,” or Zoe, who’s fed up with having to be twice as good, twice as nice, just to be considered barely equal? When we discover that she’s planning to protest a visit by Sandra Day O’Connor because of decisions she made that did not favor minorities, Janine is dumbfounded that a woman would stand up against another woman, the first appointed to serve on the Supreme Court.
She also condemns Zoe as a member of the privileged millennial class, whose iPhones have taken the place of real communication. “Digital natives” and “technological savages” are micro-aggression triggers for Zoe, and Janine doesn’t even come close to understanding why. But Zoe misses the point, too, when Janine says that she’s pushing for “group think” and re-education camps with some of her demands.
Two smart people, two progressives who battle till it becomes a zero-sum game, with remarkable dialogue and real emotion, that’s what this ideological warfare between the two becomes. There is no solution.
The ending line, “You know what I hear when I listen to you?” “Your own thoughts,” is a powerful statement on the terrible divisions that have polarized our body politic. No matter whose side you end up on, there’s no winning this debate. Now we just have to learn to live with our differences. Without destroying each other.
NATIVE SON: RACISM ON STEROIDS
In 2016, Center Theatre Group launched Block Party at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, presenting outstanding productions staged by small, local theatres. “Native Son,” based on the Richard Wright novel, was produced by Antaeus Theatre Company, originally adapted for stage at Chicago’s Court Theatre.
Wright’s novel is far more complex than the condensed version of the stage action here, which, per the program description takes place in “a labyrinth of Chicago’s black belt and surrounding areas as it appears in Bigger’s mind”; and during “a split second inside Bigger’s mind, when he runs from his crime, remembers, imagines, two cold and snowy winter days in December 1939 and beyond.”
Bigger’s father was killed during a protest, his mother struggles to feed the children and keeps a Christian household. But Bigger is seething and sees the white world not only as his oppressor but as his enemy.
It’s a time shifting story, with the character of “The Black Rat” invented for this show. It takes place before, during and after Bigger accidentally smothers his boss’s daughter, a brazen young woman who gets drunk and tries to seduce him. Whether or not the murder was intentional won’t matter: he’s a black man, she’s a white woman, justice is not in his favor.
This is an intensely physical production, and every single performer gives it their all. It’s non-stop action for 90-plus minutes and well worth your time.