Home Entertainment Forward Theater grapples with slavery and blind spots in virtual production of...

Forward Theater grapples with slavery and blind spots in virtual production of ‘The Niceties’


“The power that art and theater have, we hold a mirror up,” said The Niceties Co-director DiMonte Henning. “We depict real-life events, and we show what people are feeling so that people can empathize, so people can sympathize, and so that people can learn and educate.”

Starting next month, Forward Theater will kick off the new year with a two-week run of Eleanor Burgess’ The Niceties.

Samantha Newcomb

The Niceties is a play about Zoe, a Black college student who, upon being called into her professor’s office regarding a paper she wrote about slavery and the American Revolution, engages in discourse with her professor that quickly devolves into a heated debate about racism and prejudice.

The Niceties features actresses Samantha Newcomb and Sarah Day playing the lead characters.

Henning emphasized the importance of this production, stating that he believes “every American should” see The Niceties.

“It’s unfortunately very sad that we still have to talk about these topics, but they are important,” Henning said. “I hope that when audiences see this play, that they’ll be able to reflect on their own experiences, see maybe their own faults, and then try to better themselves.

The Niceties Co-director DiMonte Henning

“I think that it’s important for people today to understand that you have people who have perspectives like [Zoe’s professor] in the country and then you have people who have perspectives like Zoe and how do you bridge that gap?” Henning continued. “How do you respectfully debate with one another? How do we progress in this country?”

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the play will be hosted completely online.

Jen Uphoff Gray, the artistic director for Forward Theater and co-director, noted that Forward Theater has adapted its virtual presentation in order to mimic the “robust experience” playgoers normally enjoy when attending a show in-person.

After receiving a ticket, attendees will be directed to a virtual lobby located on a private page on the Forward Theater website. Attendees will be able to access various pre-show materials such as the pre-recorded pre-show lecture and tech-related instructional videos.

Following each performance, the cast and directors will host a talkback in which participants can talk with each other and the cast members about the content of the show.

Jen Uphoff Gray is the artistic director for Forward Theater and co-director of “The Niceties.”

“The audiences we have at Forward tend to be really passionate, really engaged, and really eager to learn, which is great,”  Gray said. “They’re also a predominantly white liberal Madison audience, which means that sometimes they don’t know their own blind spots.”

Gray added that these conversations can be enlightening for some but also most of the “the emotional labor in these conversations” falls disproportionately on BIPOC people. 

“[Talkbacks] are so difficult sometimes to have, in a way that is both honest and also safe and respectful for everybody who’s participating and figuring out how to create an environment where the audience that comes to the talkback that wants to learn and grow has the opportunity to do so but that we do it in a way that is protective of the artists and any audience members of color.”

“It will make people uncomfortable and I think that’s how we make progress,” Henning It’s going to make people uncomfortable, but it’s needed because as I said, this has been going on in this country for too long. I think that theatre and art have the power to change and to hold a mirror up to [society.]”

Performances will begin on January 22nd through February 7th, 2021. Tickets are available here on the Forward Theater website.