review: “admissions” confronts white guilt

Joshua Harmon, who most recently captured the lonely gay experience in “Significant Other” now takes on the liberal obsession with student body diversity in his new play, “Admissions” at Lincoln Center. For anyone who has ever applied to a school or even seen one of those admissions brochures, this play will bring back some haunting memories. But this play goes beyond the glossy pictures of minority students or pie charts about what percent of the school’s population are students of color. Harmon takes us into the belly of the beast: a white admissions officer at an elite New England private school.

Sherri (Jessica Hecht) takes her job very seriously, and is incredibly proud of the fact that she has tripled the amount of minority students at Hillcrest since she began working there. She even lectures her coworker, Roberta (Ann McDonough) for not accurately representing the diversity of the school in her draft for the admissions magazine. But the family’s morals about race — their woke-ness if you will — is tested when the father, Bill (Andrew Garman), receives a promotion over a black teacher, and the son, Charlie (Ben Edelman), gets differed from Yale while his half-black best friend Perry is accepted.

Perry takes less AP courses than Charlie, did worse on his SATs, does not have a long resume of extracurriculars, and isn’t as good at basketball — and yet Perry got accepted and Charlie didn’t. Soon Charlie and his parents cannot help but question if it all came down to the part of the application where you check the box for what race you are.

Although both Sherri and Charlie begin the piece confident about their mission on diversity, once the Yale decision comes out, everything is put into question. Charlie goes on a rant about who “counts” as a person of color: Kim Kardashian? Penelope Cruz? Marion Cotillard? When does Asia not count? When does skintone not matter? When does an accent not mean anything?

Charlie’s rant is an amazing critique about the liberal conception of diversity and the somewhat tenuous definitions of what makes someone a person of color. Ben Edelman gives an extraordinary performance, perfectly encapsulating a privileged teenager who cannot reconcile his political ideas about race with his rejection from Yale.

But things get really interesting with Sherri, who is the center of the piece. Sherri represents the precise intersection of white guilt and white savior; she wields her power as an elite white woman to try to make her prep school more diverse. However, the audience is quick to learn that her politics are not perfect, and for her numbers and photographs are more important than the actual experiences of students of color. She constantly makes reference to a black alum who went to Harvard, then Harvard Law, then clerked for a Supreme court justice, ignoring that fact the while he was at the mostly white Hillcrest he was miserable. She yells at Roberta for not having enough “visibly minority” students in the catalog (although Perry is half black he looks white and therefore “doesn’t count”), eventually hand picking a group of three white, three black, two Asian, and two Latino students for Roberta to photograph.

Jessica Hecht helms the production, guiding us through the various ethical traps the family sets for themselves. Her performance is confident and powerful, portraying a helicopter parent with just the right amount of maternal overbearance. Although Sherri may have strong ideas about diversity, when it comes to her son and Yale, her politics fly out the window. The entire play is focused on her, so it is tempting to sympathize with her, but none of the characters can escape their own hypocrisy.

Roberta claims to “not see color” and thinks race doesn’t matter. Charlie thinks he deserves to go to Yale more than Perry. Bill has no qualms about taking a job from a black colleague or making choices for his son’s future. Perry’s mother, Ginnie (Sally Murphy) won’t shut up about “how white” the school is, never referencing the fact that she too is white. Sherri cares about diversity, but only a certain type, and only when it doesn’t hurt her son’s chances at going to a good college.

The supporting cast does an excellent job here, forcing the audience to question their own beliefs about race. McDonough is particularly comedic in her rendition of an older generation before diversity was the non-stop topic of admissions offices. Murphy too provides an excellent look at a “white mother of a black son,” full of all the pride and none of the consciousness.

Throughout the play, the morality of each character is tested; some come out firmer than ever in their staunch beliefs, but most are deeply shaken by the events, most of all Charlie. Just as Charlie is forced to reevaluate his ideas about race, diversity, admissions, and how he can personally affect change, so too is the audience. Although you may enter the theater knowing your stance on affirmative action and the college application process, by curtain call you probably will be struggling to decide how you feel.

On a final note, it is important to mention the demographic of the audience, those people sitting in the dark questioning their preconceived ideas about race. To borrow a not-exactly politically correct phrase from Sherri, there was not a single person in the audience who was “visibly black or Hispanic.” The voices of people of color were nonexistent in the play and were nonexistent in the audience. Although Harmon may have purposefully chosen to have “Admissions” be a piece where white people talk about and for people of color, I don’t believe he would have wanted his audience to be as white as his cast.