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By all accounts, maternal instinct can cause women to take surprising actions in order to protect or support their children—people love hearing stories about mothers who jumped in front of cars to save wandering toddlers or fought off wild animals. But when individuals use the excuse of wanting what’s best for their children to rationalize the morally objectionable behavior that comes with white privilege, maternal instinct starts to look monstrous. In Joshua Harmon’s Admissions, now running at Studio Theatre, the audience confronts this behavior and viewers must decide what to make of it on their own.
We meet our characters on the campus of Hillcrest, a New Hampshire boarding school, where Sherri (Meg Gibson) directs admissions and her husband, Bill (Kevin Kilner), is the dean. They’re stereotypical white New England liberals who talk about their efforts to increase the school’s diversity and love the Red Sox. (The subtle nods to New England sports culture, a racially fraught subject in and of itself, gives the play a firm sense of place.)
But when their son, Charlie (Ephraim Birney), is deferred from Yale and his friend Perry, whose father is black, gets in, Sherri’s prior support of academic diversity starts to crumble. If the admissions team in New Haven passes on her son but selects a classmate who may or may not have self-identified as black on his application, then race must have played a role.
Charlie, upon finding out about his deferral, launches into a hateful screed full of questions and opinions about how we determine who is or is not a person of color. It’s a caustic piece of writing crafted to reflect a 17-year-old boy’s extreme, self-centered views about the world—many of them, both real and fictional, have yet to discover this thing called nuance—and Birney executes it flawlessly. You can see why an Ivy League college might not be interested in his world view. His parents have opposing reactions, with Sherri immediately comforting her son and Bill calling him a “racist, spoiled little shit.” Bill, another entitled white guy, has advanced professionally because of his race, but at least he acknowledges it. Sherri ignores the world as it is and keeps dreaming of the world as it should be. Gibson’s on-stage stiffness doesn’t help this impression.
Harmon smartly contrasts Sherri’s behavior by having her interact with women whose relationships with race differ from hers. Roberta (Sarah Marshall), an older woman who works in Hillcrest’s development office, describes herself as “not a race person” when Sherri asks her to add more photos of students of color to the school’s recruitment materials, and in doing so, shows the audience how numbers-obsessed Sherri has become. Ginnie (Marni Penning), Perry’s mother and Sherri’s close friend, is shocked to hear her brush aside Perry’s accomplishment and tells her so. Of all the play’s characters, Ginnie does the most to hold Sherri accountable, so her final about-face is particularly disappointing.
Local audiences will remember Harmon as the playwright behind Bad Jews, a zany dark comedy about religious heritage and cultural identity that ran at Studio in 2014 and 2015. While Admissions contains moments of levity—specific pronunciations of Yale and Bucknell had the mostly white audience guffawing—its timely and discomforting themes don’t feel funny.
A play like Admissions gets produced because theaters assume that their predominantly white audiences will understand and relate to the characters and their worries. That line of thinking is likely true and feels incredibly cheap. In 2019, a cast of white actors telling a white playwright’s story about white guilt does not advance the conversation about equality, diversity, and inclusion in schools and professional settings. It merely repeats the double standards people have grown comfortable with.
To March 3 at 1501 14th St. NW. $20–$90. (202) 332-3300. studiotheatre.org.