Talking The Talk
Not Walking The Walk
At SpeakEasy Stage Explores Privilege, Values, Snobbery,
Reviewed by Bobby Franklin
A few years ago I was watching a news program featuring a story about a successful inner city high school where most of the graduates were going on to college. It was an uplifting story, but one part stuck in my mind to this day. A young African American girl was asked why she wanted to go to college. She responded, “So I can be better than other people.” My heart sank when I heard those words.
In watching Joshua Harmon’s newest play Admissions, now at the SpeakEasy Stage Company in Boston, those words kept echoing in my head. The play which takes place far from the inner city, at a second tier, on the verge of being first tier, prep school in New Hampshire, deals with what happens when white liberals who are in a position of power, in this case expanding minority admissions to the school, talk the talk of making their school more inclusive and diverse and then have to face the reality of walking the walk when it turns out it means giving up their own privilege.
Sherri Rosen-Mason is the Head of Admissions for Hillcrest Prep School. Her husband Bill is the Headmaster, and their son Charlie is a senior who’s dream has always been to attend Yale. He has worked hard toward that goal and has the grades and test scores to show for it. Things don’t work out as planned when Perry, Charlie’s close friend who is biracial is accepted at Yale while Charlie’s application is deferred. Charlie believes it is his skin color that has made the difference.
I have seen three of Joshua Harmon’s plays, and he is a master at writing dialog. In the opening scene of Admissions the back and forth between Sherri Rosen-Mason (Maureen Keiller) and Roberta (Cheryl McMahon) who works in development at the school is both funny and telling. Roberta is working on the school catalogue and Sherri is critiquing her work for not showing how racially diverse the school is. It becomes a numbers game about how many students of color attend the school and if they are properly represented in the catalogue. More so, are minority kids made to feel comfortable when perusing it.
The conversation between the two on who qualifies as black enough becomes awkward for Sherri as Roberta cuts to the quick with just what Sherri is trying to say. While funny, the conversation can also make many in the audience feel uncomfortable as while the goal of being more inclusive is good, the discussion of putting people into boxes based on ethnicity has ugly overtones.
This combination of humor and questioning of values is also evident in Charlie’s diatribe when he confronts his parents about why he wasn’t accepted at Yale. Nathan Malin as Charlie is positively outstanding when he goes on about what he sees as the absurdity of figuring out who qualifies as a minority and who doesn’t. Sherri and Bill (Michael Kaye) are stunned by what their son has said. Bill, “It looks like we successfully raised a Republican”. Oh! The horror!
Another awkward moment occurs when Perry’s mother Ginnie (Marianna Bassham) is sharing her joy over her son being accepted to Yale when she realizes Sherri is implying he only made it because of his skin color. Later in the play Ginnie captures the difficulty her son and so many others have to face because many people feel that way. Marianna Bassham is terrific as always.
The part of the play I found most revealing was where Charlie had decided to take things into his own hands and walk the walk that his parents talked, and made his own decision about where to attend college. Bill launches into a revealing screed about how his son will now have to do such low level jobs as “tossing pizzas and bussing tables”. He also can’t contain his disgust for community colleges. It really does all come down to being better than other people.
While the play is meant to make people look at their own privilege, in this case white privilege, it is about much more than that. No matter how well intentioned people are, when it comes to getting ahead, or having their children get ahead, are they ever going to cede their connections and power to make things happen?
White liberals will see this play and feel appropriately guilty. But how many of them will be willing to have a minority student take the seat at the table they reserved for their son or daughter? And is that really the solution?
As with other Speakeasy Productions, I would love to see a more politically diverse audience attend and participate in a discussion. Joshua Harmon knows how to raise questions. He is not afraid to make people uncomfortable, and I would assume this includes himself. And, unlike so many of today’s authors, he does not preach. The audience has to grapple with these questions on their own.
Sherri’s words are very telling, “If you don’t have a school like a Yale or Harvard on your resume, that actually puts a ceiling on what’s possible in your life. And our son is smart enough to see that. Going to Yale means your life contains all the possibility in the world. Not going there, or one of a handful of schools like it, means there are tables you will never get to sit at, tables whose existence you may never know about.”
Keeping the table small means always putting limits on what people can achieve. Maybe it’s time to find new places to sit.
While it is easy when hearing about Admissions to put it in a box as a play by and for liberals, it should not be dismissed as such. This is an excellent work and a superb production. The talented cast is outstanding. The set which smoothly transitions from campus office to family kitchen is perfect. No matter your political beliefs, I would strongly urge you to pull up a chair to this table at the SpeakEasy.
By Joshua Harmon
Directed by Paul Daigneault
Through November 30
SpeakEasy Stage Company
South End, Boston