Theatre

Joshua Harmon’s play Admissions has much to say about American white privilege but gives us little time to reflect. By Robert Reid.

Admissions

Kat Stewart as Sherri and William McKenna as her son Charlie in Admissions.
Kat Stewart as Sherri and William McKenna as her son Charlie in Admissions.
Credit: Jeff Busby

For a play that wants to say a lot, Admissions ends up saying surprisingly little. Joshua Harmon’s play – on at the Melbourne Theatre Company in a slick production directed by Gary Abrahams – follows Sherri Rosen-Mason (Kat Stewart), the admissions officer at the elite school Hillcrest Academy, and her family’s struggles to come to terms with their privilege and the institutionalised racism of the contemporary American education system.

Sherri is struggling to introduce more racial diversity to the private college where she works alongside her husband, Bill (Simon Maiden), who is principal. Their son Charlie (William McKenna) also attends the school and is in his final year vying with his biracial best friend, Perry, for a place at Yale.

Hillcrest is an exclusive college – the equivalent of a private school in Australia – and has an overwhelmingly white student body. When Sherri began working there, the school had a tiny proportion of students of colour, but through her efforts that has gradually grown to almost 20 per cent. Statistically it’s a small increase but in institutions changes tend to be incremental in scope and glacial in speed. There’s little doubt that Sherri – and to a lesser extent, Bill – is passionate about making the racial make-up of the school reflect the wider population.

Perry is accepted into Yale while Charlie is deferred. Charlie has a lengthy temper tantrum, which includes four hours of screaming in a park. We’re privy to its final catalysing moments: Charlie comes home and delivers a tirade about race and wokeness and his confusion, ending with a literal Sieg Heil. Which feels on the nose: Harmon may be trying to talk about big institutional and cultural problems, but he has his characters draw cartoonishly simple conclusions. Shamed by his father, Charlie’s rant transitions into a desperate and confused search to find an appropriate way to demonstrate solidarity. The solution he eventually settles on will drive his parents to reveal their own hypocrisies.

Charlie’s deferral ripples through their friendship with Perry’s family. Perry is only ever represented onstage by his mother, which brings me to the white elephant in the room: there’s not a single person of colour represented in the characters. Okay, it’s a play about white privilege and white guilt set in a school with a history of low diversity, but I found myself really missing Perry’s voice in the text. Hearing it only reflected through his mother made me want to see Perry and Charlie together on stage, to see how it affected their relationship. It could be that the presence of a single Black character might have seemed tokenistic, depending on the writing, but I feel that in a story about exclusion it’s at the very least odd to exclude one of the key voices.

After what seems like an abrupt volte-face but may be an unflagged time skip, Charlie makes a grand self-sacrificing gesture: he announces that he wants to secure funding for a scholarship for a student of colour by donating his own college tuition fees. Sherri and Bill are aghast and do their best to get him back into contention for an Ivy League college.

Jacob Battista’s design, with lighting by Amelia Lever-Davidson, is classic MTC: naturalistic sets that look exactly like the thing they’re meant to look like. Sherri’s office is all dark wood panelling and brass fixtures, and the two other locations – the family living room and kitchen – are magazine catalogue perfect with matching furniture and modern design. The office is draped in the trappings of institutionalised power while the home spaces are blandly inoffensive.

Admissions was winner of the American Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle awards for Best Play, but for me the cleverness of the dialogue overwhelms the drama. None of the issues raised get a chance to breathe. Instead, it’s kind of a high-speed laundry list. This could be a result of the direction, which keeps the pace at a relentless speed. There is a particular moment of stillness that comes well into the play, and in the respite the audience has a moment to think. In that silence, the clamour of the problems and arguments presented still rings – but there isn’t enough time to disentangle them all. A more nuanced attention to pace could have made the difference.

The argument of the play contrasts broad social trends with individual experience, but it’s too easy to say that institutionalised racism – and by extension sexism, ableism, transphobia and homophobia – redound to individuals and their choices. The argument Admissions presents can be reduced to “oh, you’re all for diversity as long as you’re not impacted by it”. This not only seems like whataboutism: it also isn’t the actual problem.

The cynicism of Sherri and Bill high-fiving over the improved diversity at Hillcrest while pulling on their privileged contacts to get their son into Yale elides the “structural” part of structural racism. It makes the problem seem like a few bad apples when it’s about entrenched racist systems that determine who gets access to education and society. For instance, standardised testing was originally developed by Carl Brigham to keep people of colour out of public schools – and to an extent, the military – and the dominance of classic European literature, history and philosophy in educational institutions erases non-European forms of knowledge, imagination and cultural expression.

Some of these issues are touched upon as the text breezily enumerates the problems, but because of its speed and brevity, they become lost in an indistinct big picture. This effectively restates a key mistake made in the attempt to decolonise institutions, which is assuming the issue is more about individual people than the system itself.

The cast does an admirable job of bringing these conflicted, rich, white Americans to life. Stewart gives a bravura outing as Sherri, McKenna maintains an energy level through his lengthy tantrums that feels like an authentically infuriated 17-year-old and Maiden as Bill is appropriately sympathetic and a good foil for Stewart. Heidi Arena as Perry’s mother, Ginnie, does a lot with the relatively little she’s given in the role and, when her face crumples with hurt, has a facility for eliciting real sympathy. Deidre Rubenstein as Roberta – I’m guessing the school bursar – starts out seeming like a villain, but you end up feeling sympathy for her struggles with getting diversity right.

All of which admittedly makes the evening fly by. It rockets along to its sudden ending, in keeping with the dramaturgical cut of the text. No consideration, no reflection, no sorting through the Pandora’s box of social ills that have been so rapidly unpacked here. It’s possible that the play is asking us to have these conversations ourselves, which is a noble sentiment but rather sidesteps the issue. Overall, it’s a show that is full of energy and ideas but little consequence. 

Admissions plays at the Southbank Theatre, Melbourne, until April 9.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 19, 2022 as "Race to the finish".

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Robert Reid is a Melbourne theatre historian, critic and playwright.

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