Arts theater review

Suburbia lost

A sharp commentary on the hypocrisies of white liberalism

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Sherri (right, Maureen Keller) tells Charlie (left, Nathan Malin) to leave her office.
Courtesy of Maggie Hall Photography

Directed by Joshua Harmon
Written by Paul Daigneault
Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA 
Oct. 25–Nov. 30

To be an Asian-American reviewer is to be a stranger in the room. I would sit in the audience for press performances and see few faces like mine. Instead, I would be surrounded by a predominantly white crowd of reviewers. There I was, the odd one out amongst people twice my age. When I started reviewing, press shows were terrifying, but after many shows, I’ve learned to tune out the discomfort — the lack of diversity in the reviewing community. Then came Admissions, and the feeling came back. 

In short, Admissions is a play about a white liberal family coming to terms with the access afforded to them by their race while also publicly valuing diversity. Sherri Rosen-Mason (Maureen Keller) is on the admissions committee for Hillcrest, a fictional boarding school in New Hampshire. Her husband Bill (Michael Kay) is the headmaster of the school that their son Charlie (Nathan Malin) attends. The three of them have always valued the diversity around them and the respect they must have for people of different races. Their values become challenged, though, when Charlie doesn’t make it into Yale but his biracial friend does. What follows next is a stinging reflection of America’s hidden system that white people can leverage for their own advantage. 

It would be criminal to talk about the play without bringing up its controversial decision to not include people of color. For a play about diversity, there are no actors of color onstage. Characters of color are only mentioned in passing and live on the peripheries of the cast’s lives. For any person of color that felt those uncomfortable stares in public or that shift in tone when in a predominantly white environment, Admissions amplifies that sense of isolation. If you are a person of color, then this play should make you feel off. If it was any other play, I would have scrutinized this direction, burnt it to a crisp. However, this is a deliberate choice, one made to not only unnerve people of color but also everyone else in the audience. 

As Harmon describes his choice in characters: “People behave differently in ‘polite company’ than when they are alone. So I felt, if I were going to successfully drill down into the bedrock of the lives of well meaning liberals and have any chance at exposing something honest and true and real about how privilege operates, I had to put them onstage alone.” So we get Sherri as she struggles to reconcile her lofty ideals with her aspirations for her son. In a devastating scene between her and Malin, Keller delivers a powerful performance as she convinces her son to abandon his attempts to “save” the education system and instead accept his white privilege. It is an intense back and forth that Keller wastes no time in setting the stakes for. Any scene she was in, as a matter of fact, felt intense. With no intermission in between the two halves of the play, the audience had no time to breathe. One could feel the tension in the air, thick like molasses. 

Just as much as Admissions satirizes the hypocrisy of liberal racism, it never forgets its roots as a tragedy. That’s right, this show is tragic. The Masons come face-to-face with the knowledge that their liberal ideology may not always work in their favor, even if it garners public support. Each scene, then, is quick, loaded with commentary towards anyone willing to sacrifice values for success. As MIT students, it’s easy to forget about the politics happening on the fringes of our knowledge. It’s easier still to imagine that it doesn’t pertain to us. That’s why this play is so relevant now. Admissions is an intense scrutiny of race in everyday life, from how we make different races “other” to how we place ourselves in relation to them. Go see this play. Feel the discomfort. Reflect on what it means to you, not in racial terms, but through the lens of a participant in the system that favors certain races more than others.