You probably know people like Cindy and Eric. They’re a politically liberal, white, middle-class couple who work from their home in the suburbs of a progressive Southern town, where their two kids go to the local public elementary school.
All things considered, they’re very nice.
And that, in itself, is the problem in a controversial—and award-winning—play, Nice White Parents 2016, by the Durham author and podcast host Tamara Kissane that sees its first production this weekend in Greensboro.
In a sign that regional playwrights are increasing in prominence, Kissane takes the same road west that Mike Wiley took last fall, when Greensboro’s Triad Stage commissioned and produced Rebellious, a historical drama dealing with the largely behind-the-scenes contributions that students at Bennett College, a Black women’s college, made to the famous sit-ins in that city.
In Kissane’s play, the year is 2016, and the country’s culture and politics are at a fundamental crossroads. As ongoing extrajudicial killings by law enforcement officers continue to fuel the Black Lives Matter movement, a growing populist and nationalist backlash among right-wing conservatives is ushering Donald Trump into the White House.
Locally, when a class of second graders does a march for Black lives around their school for a unit on civic activism, a distraught white parent posts a video about it on Facebook. The school is immediately inundated with hate mail and protests and the teachers receive death threats.
It’s a moment in which the community needs to take a stand. And when Cindy and Eric are unable at first to decide what that stand should be and how they should respond, their friendship with Lorraine and Trevor, a Black couple, their relationship with their own children, and their own sense of ethics and integrity are all brought into question.
In Nice White Parents 2016, Kissane probes a dilemma similar to one Martin Luther King and others diagnosed in their writings during the 1960s: how white liberals, preoccupied more with civility than civil rights, have been at times one of the greatest impediments to achieving racial equity in our country.
“It was very uncomfortable to write this,” Kissane says. “In many ways, it was born out of the discomfort that I felt in 2016—discomfort with my own complicity.” In addition to being a longtime actor, playwright, and creator of the Artist Soapbox podcast who was named Piedmont Laureate in 2020, Kissane was very much a member of the title demographic in 2016.
“I was collecting all of these little interactions with people and the thoughts I had myself at the time,” she says, “because they really got under my skin.” At one point, the material covered her living room floor, as she attempted to reassemble, find connections and make sense of “things that were going on at the time for me, internally, but also externally in the world.”
Spotlight on the Author
The longtime Durham theater artist and podcaster follows music journalist David Menconi in the post, which seeks to build literary bridges in the Triangle and beyond.
During that time, Kissane recalls seeing “a lot of other people who looked like me struggling with the same issues” and calls her work “one way of trying to process, learn, and take responsibility for the discomfort I was feeling and not being OK with staying silent about it.”
The play caused a sensation when it was submitted to the North Carolina New Play Project, according to Todd Fisher, performing arts coordinator for Creative Greensboro, an initiative of the Greensboro city government.
“There’s this energy when there’s four dramatists in the room and they’re excited about one script,” Todd says. He remembers the panel feeling “this is hot, this is now, it needs to be seen by a North Carolina audience and it needs a North Carolina stage.”
Nice White Parents 2016 isn’t the first winner by a regional playwright in the project’s 29-year history. Works by Michael A. Smith, Mary Jett Parsley, and Justice Theater Project artistic director Jerry Sipp have taken top honors in the past. Winners receive an honorarium, a year of developmental time with feedback from Fisher and associates, and a public production at the end.
With Kissane, the developmental process included intense table readings and dialogue with Angela Williams Tripp and Kerri Mubaarak, the cofounders of Scrapmettle Entertainment, a network of writers, directors, and performing artists, which is coproducing the play.
Tripp says that the script reveals the subtleties of systemic racism.
“You’re not doing racist things, but you don’t realize that when you allow someone to do something wrong and you don’t step up and say anything about it, you’re playing into it,” Tripp says. “And that’s what keeps the circle going.”
As Kissane probes into the world of working parents living everyday lives, she parses the privilege that permits the white couple to distance, insulate, and disconnect themselves from the world that the Black couple has to navigate directly. As Nice White Parents 2016 develops, it becomes increasingly obvious that Cindy and Eric fundamentally do not understand what they’ve been missing.
“I really wanted to dig into this idea that intention does not negate impact—that saying ‘I didn’t know’ or ‘I didn’t mean to’ only goes so far. Good intentions are not sufficient. In this case, white people need to take responsibility and educate themselves,” Kissane says.
She views her play as “kind of a snapshot of a reckoning” that started with her before 2016 but “really, really got into my gut then, and has continued since.”
Recalling the words of bell hooks that “love is an action,” Kissane says that “our ability to dance around in our language and give lip service—that needs closer examination. If you’re just going to say words but not follow up with action, then the words are, well, meaningless.”
“It’s easy to say, ‘Oh well, I’m an ally,’” Kissane continues. “But what does that really mean? Even if you intend to be one, you certainly aren’t one 100 percent of the time. Can you accept that as a white person or a white parent, process the emotions that come up around that, and move on? Because it’s not about you.”
Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle. Comment on this story at email@example.com.