Conflict at Yale University and the Writing of The Niceties
by Katherine Heyman, Chester Theatre Company intern
Eleanor Burgess’s The Niceties touches on a number of conflicts present on college campuses across the United States today: ones that are generational, racial, political, and class-based. While she was a student at Yale, Burgess was present for an incident which shook campus life, incited debates across the nation, and inspired Burgess to write her play, which The New York Times called “a bristling, provocative debate play about race and privilege in the United States.”
In 2015, the Yale Intercultural Affairs Committee sent an email to the student body asking that they not make “culturally unaware or insensitive” choices while choosing their Halloween costumes. The specific categories that the email asked students to think critically about choosing were “funny” costumes that made fun of real human traits and cultures, historical costumes that furthered historical inaccuracies, cultural costumes that reduced cultures to a stereotype, and costumes that mocked people’s deeply held religious beliefs. The letter also specifically stated that while Yale is an environment that values free speech and expression, inclusivity is just as important to the college and costume choices like those listed above rule out inclusivity at the expense of “free expression.”
After the original email was sent out, a response came from Erika Christakis, Associate Master at Silliman College, one of Yale’s residential colleges. In her statement, Christakis criticized the position of the Intercultural Affairs Committee, lamenting that college campuses, in her view, were once a place where people could express undeveloped or even “problematic” ideas, and that the first statement by the committee had impeded upon that liberty. She asked her students, “Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious … a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive?” She also asked students to express their opinions amongst one another, saying, “If you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended. Talk to each other. Free speech and the ability to tolerate offence are the hallmarks of a free and open society.”
Christakis’s account launched a firestorm that spread from the Yale campus across the nation, where students debated fiercely on the topics of free speech and equity in academia. Hundreds of Yale students and faculty signed an open letter criticizing Christakis and her letter, and asking that she resign. The letter contained a message of anger and frustration from students of color and other marginalized identities that the “free speech” of white students came at the expense of their safety and energy, as well as with the entire institution of Yale. The letter says, “To ask marginalized students to throw away their enjoyment of a holiday, in order to expend emotional, mental, and physical energy to explain why something is offensive, is — offensive… To be a student of color on Yale’s campus is to exist in a space that was not created for you.” Christakis resigned after an explosive fight between a group of Yale students and her husband, Nicholas Christakis.
Eleanor Burgess was a Yale student at the time of these events, and took direct inspiration from how her friends chose sides in the fight. She says of this experience, “I was struck by the fact that my friends couldn’t have a successful conversation about the protests. They took sides and the sides quickly led to fighting.” Burgess has expressed that while writing The Niceties, she found herself agreeing at different points with the perspectives of each character. She says that despite the immediate apparent differences (racial, generational, class) between the characters, the play is really about a clash of philosophies.