White privilege receives a pummelling in the satire Admissions. It is 2015 and Sherri Rosen-Mason (Kat Stewart) is head of admissions at an exclusive US high school – Hillcrest in New Hampshire, New England. Over 15 years, Sherri has worked tirelessly to raise the percentage of coloured students at the school. She has succeeded in seeing that proportion elevated in that time from a mere six per cent to 18 per cent, but she vows to press on.
That is why she is beside herself when she has to counsel – not for the first time – long-serving staff member Roberta (Deirdre Rubenstein) about the poor representation of Blacks and Hispanics in the next admissions’ catalogue. That is the periodical distributed to prospective students. In short, Sherri labels the draft a failure and instructs Roberta in very specific terms to redress the imbalance. Roberta, whose family has a near hundred-year history with the school and whose father taught chemistry there for 33 years, doesn’t know what all the fuss is about because she maintains she doesn’t see race.
Sherri has the full support of her husband Bill (Simon Maison), who is school principal, in pursuing a greater representation of minorities at the august institution. Their son, 17-year-old Charlie Luther Mason (William McKenna), is one of Hillcrest’s top students and he has applied to Yale. So, too, has his best friend Perry (who we don’t see). The pair has been inseparable since the age of three. Perry’s mother Ginnie Peters (Heidi Arena) – who married a biracial man – is very close to Sherri.
And then the bombshell drops that Perry has seen his dream come true, but Charlie hasn’t. Angry, frustrated and upset, Charlie explodes in a fit of pique, calling out the favourable treatment given to non-whites when it comes to university entrance. Beyond that, he pays out on a specific female student for being selected as editor of the school newspaper, while he has had to settle for the associate position.
His parents are taken aback, to say the least, and his father slams his son. But that is merely the start of the problems Bill and Sherri will face in ensuing months – months that threaten to derail all the husband and wife have worked for. For, make no mistake, notwithstanding their trenchant position about equality, they want Charlie to attend the best university possible to ensure a bright future. And then Charlie goes rogue.
The blowtorch is turned up to maximum heat in Joshua Harmon’s biting page turner, which raises the question how far one is willing to go in the name of principle. It is a play with an enormous amount of cut through. Challenge and confrontation are the name of the game. Admissions is populated by strong, passionate characters, big on conviction. It has been brilliantly conceived and written.
My only qualm concerns a Nazi reference that I feel is offensive and oversteps the mark. While, in context, I understand why it is in the play, I still believe it could have been expressed more sensitivity, without compromising meaning.
The performances – all five, led so masterfully by Kat Stewart – are magnificent. The delivery is complimented by highly expressive facial movements, indicating incredulity, shock and outrage. The diatribe from Charlie upon learning he has missed out on a place at Yale is undoubtedly one of the show’s many high points, notwithstanding the unfortunate remark I referenced earlier. William McKenna is a force of nature. Fortunately, the piece gives all actors the opportunity to stamp their mark and that they do with distinction.
The staging, too, is a work of real craftsmanship by Jacob Battista. Rows of library books line shelves on either side of a rotating stage, upon which are positioned three large sets. There is Sherri’s wood panelled office, the Masons’ modern kitchen and their living room, complete with steep staircase. Gary Abrahams’ direction is sharp and assured throughout. He has done a fine job with the material. Admissions is quality entertainment in the guise of a moral quandary. It is playing at Southbank Theatre, The Sumner until 9th April, 2022.
Other reviews you might enjoy:
- Heisenberg (MTC) – theatre review
- Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes (MTC) – theatre review
- Puffs (Alex Theatre) – theatre review
Alex First is a Melbourne based journalist and communications specialist. He contributes to The Blurb on film and theatre.