theater (reviews)

In Joshua Harmon’s “Admissions,” the Real Test Is Racial Quotas

01 [featured image] Jessica Hecht Andrew Garman Ben Edelman (Jeremy Daniel)

Jessica Hecht, Andrew Garman, and Ben Edelman in Joshua Harmon’s Admissions. Photos: Jeremy Daniel.

[article as originally published in The Clyde Fitch Report, March 15, 2018.]

Lincoln Center Theater’s Mitzi Newhouse stage this season has hosted two serious ruminations on the challenges of parenting and navigating the unpredictable waters of secondary school to college. In Dominique Morriseau’s Pipeline, a Black mother in a public high school fights to keep her child in the prep school she has fought to place him in. White, Black and Hispanic cultures and themes are represented by the divorced parents, their son, his girlfriend, and the mother’s colleagues.

Joshua Harmon’s currently running Admissions, on the other hand, features an all-white cast of characters pondering their lives, and the lives of Black and biracial characters who are kept offstage, at a tony New England prep school. The themes of Pipeline and Admissions, though they may resonate separately, together ask a question: How far can, or will, parents go to ensure the educational futures of their children? In Admissions, white characters talk about race amongst themselves, with challenging results.

Sherri (calm, resolute Jessica Hecht) has headed up admissions for Hillcrest School for 15 years, steadily diversifying the student body and enhancing her professional reputation. Her husband Bill (affable, sometimes explosive, ultimately creepy Andrew Garman), is the headmaster. These middle-class parents took their jobs, in part, to give their son, Charlie (intense Ben Edelman), a free ride at a pricey school — a chance to jump-start a life of privilege. Then there’s Ginnie Peters (Sally Murphy), mother of Charlie’s best friend Perry, and the wife of another teacher at the school. We don’t meet Percy or his father. It takes several scenes to learn that Ginnie’s husband is Black — making Perry biracial.

Admissions ends with Sherri pondering the public and private aftermath of the annual process that is implied by the title. It’s in the way she arrives at that moment where Harmon centers his drama. For example, Sherri challenges a colleague, Roberta (Ann McDonough), to redesign the school brochure to reflect the kind of diversity she envisions. At first their conversation feels superficial. But then the profound issues of the play move to the fore when Sherri makes clear to Roberta that when she says diversity, she means skin color: show diversity to sell the school. Roberta pushes back — and in ways that other characters, in other ways, will later echo: tell me who; tell me which colors; tell me why the biracial student pictured doesn’t pass muster; tell me how to fit people into boxes.

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