Moxie Theatre’s ‘Niceties’ is a play, a film and an audience-interactive forum

Deja Fields and Mouchette van Helsdingen in Moxie Theatre's "The Niceties."
(Courtesy of Moxie Theatre)

Two-character play tackles issues of race and privilege in 2016 America


When Jennifer Eve Thorn saw “The Niceties” popping up on “must-read” play lists, she avoided it because the title alone sounded boring. But when she finally read the script about race and privilege in 2016 America, she found it so compelling she couldn’t wait to produce it at Moxie Theatre.

Then the pandemic forced Thorn, Moxie’s co-founder and executive artistic director, to move all of the company’s programming online. And “The Niceties” wasn’t a good fit for the work-from-home Zoom-based plays the company produced for 12 weeks earlier this year.

“This didn’t seem like the kind of play you throw in someone’s lap in their living room and walk away,” Thorn said. “Because of the nature of this play we felt it was really important for our community to discuss it together live after watching it.”

So instead of presenting “The Niceties” as stream-at-will filmed stage production, Moxie is screening “The Niceties” at set showtimes Thursday through Oct. 4 that will be surrounded with live audience interaction. Thorn will open each show with a live greeting, and after each performance, she’ll host a webinar with guest speakers where audience members can join in the discussion.

Set on a progressive college campus in the months before President Trump’s election, Eleanor Burgess’s 2018 play is a confrontation between a White middle-aged woman college professor and her Black millennial female student. Issues of racism, class, generational bias and more erupt as they discuss the merits of the student’s thesis on how the founding of the American democracy was rotten to its core due to slavery.

“I fell in love with the play instantly,” Thorn said. “It’s an interesting conversation between two really smart women who both consider themselves liberal and would, on the surface, find a lot of common ground. But I found the conversation between them to be so provocative.”

“The Niceties” is directed by former Moxie artistic director Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, who calls the play “delightful to listen to because it allows audiences to be on both sides of the debate at any given time.”

“For me, my allegiance flipped back and forth,” Turner Sonnenberg said. “When I read it, I thought it was speaking to me in this moment, but at the same time I could see myself in both of those women. I wish it was a live performance because it’s the kind of play that sparks conversation.”

The play, co-starring Mouchette val Helsdingen as the professor Janine and Deja Fields as her student Zoe, was filmed with three cameras onstage at Moxie with a full scenic design, costumes, sound and lighting. To achieve this in a safe and socially distanced way, all rehearsals and production meetings were held online, designers went into the theater one at a time to create their work, and before the start of filming, actors and crew were all tested for COVID-19.

“I’m a former Moxie, but I can’t say enough about how Moxie worked to make it easy and comfortable and safe,” Turner Sonnenberg said.

The expensive, three-month process of bringing “The Niceties” to the stage and home audiences was documented by Moxie board member John Brooks, who runs the video production company Canis Lupus Productions. Brooks is still editing the documentary, but an excerpt of that film will be shown to online audience members before each performance of “The Niceties.”

“It’s a huge financial risk,” Thorn said of the multilayered production. “But if we’re going to do that, and audiences don’t turn out in the numbers we hope they will, then we want to make sure at least that the social impact and value is there.”

Moxie Theatre’s “The Niceties”

When: Opens Thursday, Sept. 17, and runs through Oct. 4. Showtimes, 7 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays, plus 2 p.m. Sept. 21-24.

Tickets: $35 per household (discounts available)

Phone: (858) 598-7620


— Pam Kragen is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune