“Admissions:” When Everyone is Right About Diversity Yet Wrong
‘Admissions’ Mixes White Pieties with Real World Confusion
Sometimes, with issues like race and class, more than one person can be right. In fact, in Silverthorne Theater’s production of Joshua Harmon’s “Admissions,” everyone makes their own elegant case for what’s right and they end up shouting and storming off. Because it’s damn hard to be right about white privilege in 2015, no matter how determined we are.
The play, directed by Mark Dean, has one 90-minute act, with breaks for scene changes and two settings, the admissions office and the campus housing where the Masons live with their son Charlie. The set is convincing as two separate spaces, alternating between the two. Kudos to the set builders for creating such a realistic two-setting stage.
At the Hillcrest School in New Hampshire, we meet the admissions director seated at her desk as she browbeats a beleaguered older staff member over the lack of diversity in the photos for next year’s admissions catalog. The well-meaning younger administrator can’t stress enough to her senior and underling, Roberta, (Jane Barish) that she just isn’t getting it. “We have to show prospective African-American students that Hillcrest looks like them,” she says angrily. “Why don’t you get that? Only three of the 52 photos are of people of color!”
Roberta tries hard, but she can’t help but remind her boss, Sherri Rosen-Mason, (Margaret Streeter) that for 33 years she’s been a part of the Hillcrest school and she just doesn’t see races, she sees prep school kids. But Sherri’s job is to see race and she sure does, hoping to raise the school’s minority percentage to 20 percent from 18. It’s a little number but one that will be celebrated later in the play.
We wince as Roberta states the obvious, wondering if a light-skinned African American student will look black enough in the photos. After the tough session with her colleague, the next scene is in Sherri’s kitchen, where she is dishing with her best friend over glasses of Chardonnay about the pain of trying to convey her simple demands to this clueless staffer.
We learn that the friend and colleague, Ginnie Peters, has a son who is black, and both Charlie and her son Perry got news from Yale: Perry got in but Charlie had to settle for deferment.
At this moment we learn how much of Sherri’s worldview is wrapped up in which Ivy League college Charlie goes to. It’s as simple as that. “Four Supreme Court justices and so many presidents went to Harvard and Yale,” she posits.
And ever since he was old enough to talk, all Charlie has ever wanted was to get into Yale. Now he has to settle for a deferment, while Perry coasts right in. The mom’s lament is real, but soon enough it becomes clear that Ginnie’s son has an advantage. And we know what it is.
But later Ginnie turns the tables on Sherri when she brings up how her biracial husband Don and Sherri’s white husband had such different experiences moving up the Hillcrest ladder. Bill has become the Headmaster, while Don remains just a teacher—even though they both started at the same time.
Nothing is fair and nothing off limits as we meet Charlie, (Luke Bosco) who is mightily indignant about the many instances he sees at school that feel like discrimination against HIM. There’s the black girl, Olivia who earned a spot as the newspaper editor, and of course the aforementioned Perry, and it all adds up to a twisted and illogical set of hierarchies that no one understands and no one truly benefits from. In a brilliant 17-minute monologue, expressing his frustration and rage, Charlie nails down the dance that society does to make one class of people a minority and brand another an oppressor. He questions why Perry has gotten the nod after he took more AP classes and bested him in other, subtle ways.
He ends his angry tirade with a “Sieg Heil,” shocking his parents. At this point, his dad Bill Mason (Stephen Eldredge) just can’t take it anymore and lambasts his spoiled, bright, and privileged son for his entitlement and strange turn to the right. It’s a fabulous moment of theater to see such a dramatic monologue and the resulting and equally true skewering he gets from his liberal dad. Sorry, you spoiled brat of mine, but there isn’t enough pity in the world to feel sorry for you over the great injustice of a Yale deferment, Charlie. Complaining about a lack of caviar when eating duck confit, he says. Come on!
But the fireworks are just beginning, as Charlie cooks up a brilliant scheme to rid himself of his white guilt forever, just as his parents are scrolling through their Rolodexes in search of some way to hasten his admission into Yale, or anywhere other than community college. Oh no, not that. Not for OUR son, you can feel them saying.
Charlie publishes his treatise in the school newspaper. He’s told every college that accepted him that he’s withdrawing his applications and he wants to go to community college and use his fat college fund to pay for minority scholarships at Hillcrest. That will bring that all-important minority enrollment number up, which should make mom happy–right? NO DAMN WAY, says mom. NO WAY!
There is a limit to this tiger Mom’s tolerance and her kid is damn well going to Middlebury, she’s the mom and that is what is happening—Charlie’s white martyr act notwithstanding. Charlie wants to give his spot up for a deserving minority. Sherri argues convincingly that he will have a better life if he follows her and dad’s advice and just goes to regular college instead of working and attending community college. She’s right, however unfair it may sound.
Harmon’s script was remarkable in how well it captured these intense feelings, both the irony and the difficulty in trying to navigate race, class, and privilege, and each actor in the play wrings the most out of their character. The set gives enough realism that we really feel like we’re all witnessing a real-life struggle. It’s a brilliantly written play with actors who pack punches all around, and a marvelous night of theater in Greenfield.
“Admissions” by Joshua Harmon, directed by Mark Dean. At Hawks and Reed’s fourth floor Perch theater, April 23, 24, 28, 29, 30, 2022. Tickets at Silverthorne Theater