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WASHINGTON, D.C. — “Admissions,” playwright Joshua Harmon’s biting commentary on white power and privilege, is onstage at D.C.’s Studio Theatre through March 3 and pokes fun at white liberals who, on the surface, profess an interest in sharing power until their comfort zone is threatened by change.
Ably directed by Mike Donahue, the play looks at the lives of Bill and Sherri, the white, progressive and proud headmaster and dean of admissions at Hillcrest, a mid-tier New Hampshire boarding school, where for the last 15 years they’ve worked tirelessly to diversify the school’s predominantly white population.
However, when their friend’s bi-racial son is accepted to Yale, and their high-achieving son Charlie’s application is wait-listed, Charlie’s bitter reaction opens a deep rift between the family’s public values and private actions. What follows is a funny, but poignant look at how some white liberals use every advantage to keep themselves comfortable, and in the play, how the couple will seek to use their white privilege to help realize their son’s dream.
As Sherri, Meg Gibson is superb as the admissions counselor who prides herself on having raised the diversity level at the school from six percent to 18 percent, while at the same time fast-tracking the applications of white children of wealthy alumni and donors. In the opening scene, she even argues with a colleague about the lack of pictures with people of color in a soon to be published school catalog.
She stresses to the older Roberta (a hilarious Sarah Marshall) that admission’s goal this year is to increase the diversity level to 20 percent and that the catalog must show more pictures of non-white students and faculty members to attract minority applicants. She even demands that non-white students be pictured in science classes, reading books and sitting in the cafeteria eating with white students, as opposed to just participating in sports activities.
As it turns out, the admissions catalog does have one picture of Perry Peters, Charlie’s inseparable best friend and the bi-racial son of a couple whose black father is a Hillcrest faculty member. When Roberta points this out to Sherri, Sherri suggests that Perry does not read as black. The conversation morphs into a roaringly funny dialogue about skin color, shade and what is considered identifiably black or Hispanic enough.
Yet, when 17-year-old Charlie, raised to express himself freely, throws a bitter temper tantrum after anxiously awaiting his own acceptance letter, Sherri puts on her protective mom hat. Overlooking his sense of white male entitlement and his belief that he is the superior student to Perry, she dismisses his anger at what he surmises as racial quotas, stating that is to be expected under the circumstances.
Ephraim Birney plays Charlie and gives a stellar performance. In a 15-minute, uninterrupted monologue, he viciously questions the talents and abilities of the minority students that he has interacted with, depicting himself as a poor, white victim, despite his privileged upbringing.
Going even further, he even rails on who gets to define racial diversity, asking such questions as why the descendants of Europeans who conquered North America are considered white, while the descendants of Europeans who conquered South America are considered Latino. If Penelope Cruz is considered a person of color, then why not Sophia Loren?
Charlie, an atheist, even sees racial quotas as a way of excluding Jews from Ivy League schools, a reference to his secular Jewish mother’s past. As Bill, Kevin Kilner brings a convincing right wing voice to the table, calling his son ungrateful and admonishing him for “latching onto your dead grandfather’s Auschwitz cousins.” He suggests that Charlie, who has received free tuition at Hillcrest because of his parents’ positions, can apply to other universities.
Marni Penning plays Ginni, Perry’s mother, whose relationship with Sherri is strained when Sherri wonders if Perry checked black on his Yale application in order to get preferential treatment. Ginni’s comeback is notable: she reminds Sherri that her white husband is headmaster, while her black husband has worked at Hillcrest for years, rising no higher than a faculty member.
In writing “Admissions,” and “Bad Jews,” Studio Theatre’s most successful play in history, Harmon noted that as a playwright, he loves to write about characters who grapple with a moral question. Throughout “Admissions,” he weaves in incidents in which Bill, Sherri, Charlie and the other cast must make a moral decision. For instance, Ginni drops by twice with goodies from a local baker who is accused of being a child molester. They eat the cake and cookies, however, because they are so delicious, ignoring the ethical implications.
“Admission” ends with a surprising plot twist, giving no solution to the question at hand. What Harmon does brilliantly, however, is paint a picture of what goes on behind closed doors when one’s good intentions are challenged by the supposed loss of their white privilege and power.