This season, there are an abundance of “issue plays” in New York theaters. Like most art, they vary from respectable to middling to just plain awful.
That last category is inhabited by plays that are so earnest in the points they’re trying to make that they neglect to put them in the mouths of believable characters. So audiences, instead of watching people, are subjected to two hours of rhetorical volleying between avatars for different sides of an issue.
But 22-year-old Jordan Boatman is really lucky or really talented — probably both. In her first job out of college, she snagged a lead role in one of the most engaging, thoughtful and well-executed issue plays of the year: The Niceties, which is nearing the end of its run in New York.
Boatman plays Zoe, a fearless, caustic African-American undergraduate student activist at an elite East Coast university. She plays opposite Lisa Banes as Janine, a middle-aged white professor who teaches History of Revolution.
In an unusual turn, the play is written, directed and acted by women, and the scene design, costume design, lighting, music, sound, casting and stage management are entirely helmed by women as well. The entire play takes place in Janine’s office. Zoe has grown impatient with a curriculum that frames American history through a lens of whiteness. Janine recognizes that she’s got a deeply intelligent student, but she also defends a status quo that gives more weight to primary source documents than oral tradition. Given that enslaved people were barred from reading and writing, this construction of history can’t be characterized as complete or fair. To Janine, this is just the way things are. To Zoe, it’s an injustice that permeates every aspect of American life, including how she’s treated on her own campus.
Because both characters hold positions that are flawed yet understandable, The Niceties is a scintillating work. Zoe at one point shares her wish that white people could experience hundreds of years of slavery and everything it entailed. Janine, through some condescending slips of the tongue, reveals her own racism, even as she denies that she, a lesbian white woman in academia and proud owner of a Hillary 2016 mug, is capable of being racist.
“It’s a really complicated role because no one wants to watch a Zoe who’s yell-y,” said playwright Eleanor Burgess. “No one wants to watch a Zoe who’s just angry. No one wants to watch a Zoe who’s just intellectual. You want to watch a character who is trying to figure out her own way to live in the world, and whether she can find a home in the world and a place to be happy in the world.”
She calls Boatman a “powerhouse actor,” destined to be a “star.” (Cue jazz hands.)
I spoke to Boatman recently at a cafe near New York City Center, where The Niceties is running. She is the daughter of actor Michael Boatman, perhaps best known for playing Carter Heywood on Spin City. Her eyes lit up as she described the first time she was truly impressed by her father’s career: when he appeared on Hannah Montana in 2008. Boatman was 12.
“Oh, man, I lost my mind!” Boatman said. “Lost. My. Mind. There was no bringing me down. I was like, ‘This is it. Honestly, we could stop the whole thing right now. This is my sweet spot.’
“I’ve always been so proud of my dad and what he does, and I think he’s phenomenal, but also as a kid growing up, when your dad is an actor, there’s a certain kind of ideal that comes with it for other kids when you’re growing up. You kind of juggle that and how not to seem like you’re too proud, not that you can ever be too proud, but too obsessed with it or whatever. When I was little … I wasn’t watching the stuff that he was doing because I was just too young.”
Zoe wants, among other things, for Janine and the university as a whole to be more conscious of how swimming in a centuries-old soup of white supremacy affects their entire existence. And then she wants them to do something about it. Her methods for achieving this are startlingly confrontational.
Boatman received her own training in drama at the North Carolina School of the Arts (which counts actors Jada Pinkett Smith and Anthony Mackie and choreographers Camille A. Brown and Debbie Allen as alumni) in Winston-Salem, a city of 250,000 people. Boatman spent her childhood in Los Angeles and New York, and Winston-Salem might as well have been another country.
And yet, it turned out to be the perfect place for her because Boatman landed what can only be described as an actress’s dream job, straight out of college: a starring role in a genuinely impressive off-Broadway play, where she goes toe-to-toe with a respected veteran actress of stage and screen.
Nicole A. Watson, who is now the associate artistic director of Round House Theatre, directed Boatman in The Piano Lesson (the Pulitzer-winning fourth play of August Wilson’s Pittsburgh cycle) during Boatman’s senior year at NCSA and recommended her to director Kimberly Senior for The Niceties.
Boatman played Berniece, a mother in her mid-30s with a child named Maretha. “She gave an amazing performance,” Watson said. “She’s extremely talented. Watching her in that role — it was nuanced, it was beautiful, it was deep, it was moving. It was all the things that you want out of an artist.”
Watson was especially wowed by the work Boatman accomplished with the child who played Maretha. “It was such a joy to watch them.”
“What’s incredible about Jordan is that she’s technically proficient, sure, but lots of people can become technically proficient,” Senior told me. “But Jordan has an incredible amount of natural confidence. I have a 10-year-old daughter who was instantly drawn to Jordan when she met her. She still talks about her all the time. ‘How’s Jordan? Will you tell Jordan I said hi?’ ”
Boatman is both girlish and self-possessed, which makes her ideal for a meaty role like Zoe, who is full of righteous anger at the world. Boatman is as much at home talking about the serious implications of The Niceties, with its no-easy-answers ending, as she is asking a reporter to inform her mother that Sweetgreen salads slathered in dressing still count toward her daily recommended intake of fiber. (Mom: They’re really good and good for her. OK?)
“In the casting of that role, I forgot I saw hundreds of women for that part,” said Senior. “And many of them were wonderful, but something with Jordan, she kinda walked into the room and nailed it, and I didn’t want to see anybody else but they made me. I was like, ‘No, I want her.’ A 30-year-old playing a 20-year-old doesn’t work. … We’ve all been there, and we know what that feels like and we can imitate it, but we’ve gone beyond it. There’s something about Jordan. She never for one minute has had any judgment of Zoe and Zoe’s behavior.
“What I find so remarkable about her in the role is she maintains an optimism for so long that it’s gonna work that it’s a crushing defeat when it doesn’t. Because that character maybe hasn’t been hurt so many times, so her fall is so painful, I find. Because she’s only been on the planet for 20 years, you know? So it’s whatever number of things might’ve happened to her are limited in scope, surely because of time. And I guess there was something about what Jordan — it’s actually her innocence. One might think you need to cast this play based on the rage, but it’s actually the opposite in my mind.”
Burgess elaborates: “I think Jordan does a beautiful job of channeling that deeper emotional level. We talked in the rehearsal room about this one point where Zoe says, ‘That’s not enough anymore,’ and this question of, OK, what would make the world better? What would be OK? What would make Zoe OK? And the answer is, it’s really hard to answer that. She’s carrying around a lot of hurt, and nothing can fix it.
“Jordan has this intelligence and this — we talk about the character as regal. Zoe’s a queen. She was raised to be, especially at the top of the play, she intends to be the female Barack Obama. She intends to take her rightful place as a leader. She’s not a character with a ton of humility or a ton of fear.”
In a rather serendipitous turn, both Zoe and Boatman are from Westchester County, New York, a fact Boatman kept to herself until the first day of rehearsals. Whenever her friends from home see the play, it’s the first thing they ask her about.
The play is set in March 2016, long before a black graduate student at Yale made news after a white student called the police on her for napping in a dorm common room. Instead, Burgess was inspired to write The Niceties by another incident at Yale that happened in 2015, when the campus became embroiled in a debate over Halloween costumes, blackface and academic freedom. Administrators emailed students, reminding them to be considerate about wearing another person’s identity as a Halloween costume. A professor expressed her dissent and later resigned, and the entire campus erupted.
“One of the things that struck me was how difficult it seemed to be in these conversations for people to say that two separate things were important,” Burgess said. “That freedom of academic expression is really important, the ability to put forward an unpopular idea and still have job safety is important, the ability to push someone’s thinking is important. And then also, the comfort and psychological well-being of students of color is important, and of students of marginalized economic backgrounds is important. Both of those things are important, and the job of the university is to thread that difficult needle.
“So many people were just picking one side or another. It wasn’t necessarily like, oh, yeah, we have a really tough decision between two really important values and we’ve got to try to balance them. Everyone was going either, ‘Oh, academic freedom is everything. Those students are coddled.’ Or, ‘The well-being of students of color is everything. Academic freedom is a ruse used to defend white supremacy.’ … I was also fascinated by why these conversations go so badly, why we have so much trouble talking to each other and how difficult it is to step outside of your own lens.”
Before she was a playwright, Burgess was a high school history teacher. The experience raised all sorts of existential questions: “How do we know what’s true if who you were born makes a very drastic difference in what you perceive to be the truth about an interaction in the middle of your day, about the country as it is now, about the country as it used to be?” she said. “How do we arrive at any sort of sense of the truth, especially if we can’t talk to each other across those barriers? How on earth do we process reality?”
“I was fascinated by why these conversations go so badly, why we have so much trouble talking to each other and how difficult it is to step outside of your own lens.”
For Boatman, whose youth was spent witnessing a black family in the White House, The Niceties is a springboard for a promising career, but it’s also an opportunity to process where we are as a nation. She cast her very first vote for president for Hillary Clinton in 2016. The Boatman family attended both Obama inaugurations. Each show provokes palpable reactions from the audience. Stage II at New York City Center is relatively small, and everyone can see and hear everyone else — whether they intend to or not.
“I love the vocal audiences, I love people that wanna talk back,” Boatman said. “The other night, during one of Lisa’s monologues where she was talking about [Thomas] Jefferson, some woman yelled back, ‘He was a pedophile!’ Very loudly. And I literally was like, ‘Mmmmmm.’ I have to control myself because I’m onstage, but that is hilarious.”
At a performance in Boston, where the play ran before moving to New York, a group of middle-aged black women provided an amen corner for Zoe.
“I could hear ’em the whole time,” Boatman said. “It was like being at church. They were like, ‘Yes! Yes! Yes! Speak the truth! Yes! Tell her!’ ”
Another woman in Boston, however, cursed at Boatman, and one simply remarked, “I didn’t like you very much in the first act.”
Boatman found a recent performance for an audience of mostly nonwhite high school students particularly inspiring. Part of the power of seeing Zoe, even when she’s wrong, is seeing a young black person fearlessly challenging white authority, arguing for her right to change the world, to make terrible things better, as only an energetic, idealistic college student can do.
As Boatman described the reactions of the teens in the audience, it was possible to see how playing a character like Zoe could influence the rest of her career. When she talks about politics and social issues, Boatman sounds a lot like Kerry Washington, another whip-smart black actress who doubled as a surrogate when Obama was campaigning for the presidency.
“They were screaming at the end of Act I!” Boatman said, grinning. “Cheering and screaming, it was amazing. I think it’s interesting, you see a student speaking to a teacher that way. I think that that’s a very powerful thing to see.”
The Niceties runs through Nov. 18 at New York City Center and at McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, New Jersey. from Jan. 10-Feb. 11.
This story has been changed to correct the attribution of a quote. The anecdote about Boatman’s interaction with the 10-year-old daughter was told by The Niceties director Kimberly Senior, not playwright Eleanor Burgess.
Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts, and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism, and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on black life.