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Michael Herring and Nancy Shelton Williams Talk The Niceties

Nancy Shelton Williams

By Kurt Mueller, Community Outreach Coordinator at Red Herring Theater Company

Red Herring Theater Company’s next show is The Niceties, running Aug. 18 to Sept. 4. It’s about a Black college student who is called into her white professor’s office to discuss her paper about slavery and its effect on the American Revolution. We sat down with director Nancy Shelton Williams and artistic director Michael Herring to discuss this timely show.

Kurt: What drew you to this play?
Nancy: Everything! How could you not be drawn to the provocative conversations, compelling ideas and examination of history along with the cornucopia of emotions and diversity of experiences?

I asked myself — when was the last time you saw two highly articulate, diverse women in tough, thoughtful and provocative debate about the overall issues of race, gender, age, economic equality, sexual preference, immigration and educational structures on a stage with such clarity, humor and relevance? I had to admit — never. And I had to admit, it was about time.

Michael Herring

Kurt: Michael, what drew you to The Niceties?
Michael: The tension between the characters, the stakes over which they battle and the balance between their arguments are the characteristics that drew me to this show and include it in Red Herring’s season. The play is baked with tension. Both Janine (played by Shelly Riggs) and Zoe (played by Latifat Sulaimon) are fighting for their careers. Janine is a tenured professor who is struggling to maintain her position of privilege and power, while Zoe is struggling to maintain her GPA to secure her dream job as a social activist.

Kurt: Nancy, how mindful have you been of the struggles of marginalized communities while putting together this production?
Nancy: On a scale of 1 – 10, with 10 being the highest, it’s an 11.

Our Red Herring team of The Niceties, the actors, stage managers, production staff and I, as the director, would probably tell you — it would be incredibly difficult not to have those thoughts and discussions. It’s the foundation of the show.

Latifat Sulaimon and Shelly Riggs in The Niceties. Credit Jerri Shafer/JAMS Photography

One of the amazing things about this script is that it references multiple people, periods and significant events in global history and recent news that have been the center of numerous cultural and political revolutions. These references have inspired us to research and learn more about these people and events, which has been an enlightening journey.

Kurt: Michael, how do social justice and diversity issues figure into your company’s work?
Michael: Red Herring’s mission is to create a theatrical experience that is profound, provocative and professional. We strive to bring works to the stage that engage and entertain audiences in the hope of making the world a more empathetic place in which to live. In other words, all of the stories we choose to tell tie back to making the world a more empathetic place to live.

When we can empathize with people from diverse cultures and understand their experiences, then our attitudes to those communities evolve, and we can embrace and celebrate our diversity. Whether it’s a musical comedy that advocates for LGBTQ issues like The Legend of Georgia McBride, or a historical drama like Silent Sky, documenting the struggles of women in science at the turn of the 20th century, almost all Red Herring shows have much more to them than just entertainment. We hope to educate our audience without lecturing them or being preachy.

Shelly Riggs and Latifat Sulaimon in The Niceties. Credit Jerri Shafer/JAMS Photography

Kurt: Nancy, are there other themes besides racial inequality that resounded with you when reading this play?
Nancy: Absolutely! In rehearsals, we’ve shared our thoughts and personal experiences about women’s inequality, the LGBTQ community, generational differences, immigration, the overall higher education structure, historical omissions/inaccuracies – many topics! We’ve basically been able to ask questions and share our different perspectives in a safe space while developing a good comradery along the way. Also, because it’s all women in the rehearsal room, we’ve found many instances of shared experiences simply by identifying as female.

Bottom line, we’re proud to bring these topics to the forefront and shine a light on them. We hope this show becomes a catalyst for audiences to have the same type of stimulating and interesting conversations about them as they’re driving home and beyond.

The Niceties runs Aug. 18 through Sept. 4 at the Red Herring Theatre in the Great Southern Shopping Center, 3723 S. High St., Columbus, 43207. Tickets and more information are available at redherringtheater.org.

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