By John Lyle Belden
You can tell the play is going to be problematic when you have five white actors talking about race. And if this bugs your liberal sensibilities, buckle in for the ride that is “Admissions,” the drama by Joshua Harmon presented by American Lives Theatre.
Sherri (Bridget Haight) is the head of Admissions at a posh New England prep school. Her mission, over the years since she took the job, has been to increase the diversity of the student body, which was overwhelmingly white even by New Hampshire standards. And she is SO close to her goal of 20 percent People of Color! Her near-retirement assistant, Roberta (Suzanne Fleenor) isn’t making it easy, though, as the photos in the new recruiting catalog are nearly all populated by White people.
But what of the basketball picture, Roberta pleads, frustrated at the countless hours already put in on the book. Next to Sherri’s son Charlie, there’s his half-Black best friend. But Perry doesn’t present as Black in photographs, Sherri replies.
Roberta pleads for clarity on her literally black and white mission, growing tense as Sherri – ever woke – continues to give instructions in euphemisms. Finally, our license-to-be-blunt-because-she’s-old says “more dark-skinned people, got it” and goes on her way.
But this play is about more than an obscure publication being sent to scholarship families in the Bronx. We find later from Perry’s mom, Ginnie (Valerie Nowosielski), that the young man has been accepted to Yale University. Charlie (Matthew Conwell), who also applied to Yale – his dream school, and as his parents insist only an Ivy League school will give him success – did not gain acceptance.
When Charlie finally gathers his wits enough to come home that evening, he is still very, very, very, very, very not good with this. Having already entered his senior year passed over for editor of the school paper for a less-capable girl, this situation has brought him to a breaking point. So, he vents in a paint-peeling rant to his mother and father, Bill (Larry Sommers), the prep school’s headmaster. After the boy storms off to his room, Bill – the kind of middle-aged man who believes he’s scrubbed every bit of racism and privilege from his soul – utters, “that’s it; we’ve raised a Republican.”
But the bitter joke is on Bill and Sherri when Charlie finally sorts through all the contradictions of his life and takes action on his own. Suddenly, a few photos in a magazine are the least of their problems.
Director Chris Saunders and the cast pull no (metaphorical) punches, as Harmon’s drama reveals that “admission” has more than one definition – and both are difficult. This hard look at liberal hypocrisy could raise concerns that conservatives may view it with, “See, I told you so!” However, I don’t see a lot of folks on that side of the spectrum wanting to attend – and what of when their critiques have a valid point? We can’t work our way out of complex situations with the same simple thinking that got us into them.
The strong performances make this worth the challenge to view; and as you wonder if the characters learned anything by the end of the play, consider: did you?