Last week, I watched a play about race in a room full of people who do not know how to value my humanity and I came away with my eyes opened.
The Niceties, a play written by Eleanor Burgess, opened at Portland Stage last week (read a full review by theater critic Megan Grumbling on page 20). In the play, we are pulled into a conversation between Zoe, a Black college student at an Ivy league college, meeting in the office of Janine, her white history professor, to discuss Zoe's thesis.
The Niceties is bold from the start, however there is a point where everything changed for me — not simply because of the words and phenomenal acting on stage, but in large part to the people sitting around me. My friends and I were there as part of Rush35 (an initiative by Portland Stage to get younger people into theater audiences) and together we made up a select few people of color among a largely older, paler and grayer crowd.
After a long discussion about race and history, Janine the professor has a line which left me changed. Near the end of the play, she tells Zoe, "If you make it too difficult to be a good person, you all of a sudden make people strangely comfortable with being a bad person."
I heard the audience murmur its assent — scattered yet audible. It seemed their mouths had been looking for a safe space to share this truth. One off the assenters sat behind me, I turned and noted who they were. Later, they came out with us to the bar.
I will not be able to accurately describe how I felt inside my body after hearing people collectively, quietly agree that being a good person can be “too difficult.” Hearing these nice white people murmur their assent that some people's requests for dignity are just “too difficult.” Terror is the word I would use to describe how I felt. Terror paired with absolute certainty that if push came to shove, I would not be safe. Like a bucket of cold water, those sounds washed over me and I realized I was surrounded by people who do not have the lens to value my humanity. The room was dark and the exits far and I felt a hopeless kind of fear. Though the moment passed, the feeling stayed with me.
Debriefing with my friends after, many of them had similar reactions. It got me thinking, where do we break down? Which requests for dignity are too hard for people in power to chew? Who is really being heard?
I caught up with the playwright, in town from New York, and asked her what she thought. “The play was born out of my own deep questions about how to make change. All that I know is that I want us to be thinking about these issues, talking to each other about them. All that I know how to do is to put into the world sentences that either haunt and trouble, or inspire and get through to me, and see if maybe they're sentences other people want to chew on too.”
I can tell you I am haunted by what I heard — a roomful of white people affirming that they don't need to care about justice whenever the expectation for them to do so makes them uncomfortable. Leaving the play, I felt I had glimpsed what's left when the niceties are stripped away, when Whiteness thinks its alone in the room. Maybe for some, there are things too tough to chew, and some dignities which are too difficult to swallow. So, what do we do? Continue to chew? Or do we put them back in the slow cooker and put that baby on simmer before it comes to a boiling point? For my part, I'll continue to chew.