Accidental Racism is Still Racism: “Admissions”

A nice family moment; photo by Maggie Hall Photography

Presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company 
By Joshua Harmon
Directed by Paul Daigneault 
Original music and sound design by Dewey Dellay

Oct. 25 – Nov. 30, 2019
Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA
527 Tremont St
Boston, MA
SpeakEasy on Facebook

Please note: this critique contains minor spoilers. 

Critique by Kitty Drexel

“I get that there are entitled white men who assume they get a seat without having to do anything to earn it, I do go to Hillcrest after all, and I do have eyes, but I’m actually one of the people working really fucking hard to earn a seat, and every time I get close it’s like, ew! Not You!” — Charlie Luther Mason throwing a tantrum in Admissions by Joshua Harmon.

(Boston, MA)  It’s no longer okay for anyone to say they “don’t see race.” It is bad, very bad to say this now. When one professes that they don’t see race, what they are saying is that they don’t see racism. This statement is a red flag for bigoted behavior. It’s especially heinous coming from liberal-until-inconvenient, white democrats like the ones in SpeakEasy’ Stage Company’s Admissions. We’re supposed to set a better example. 

Ignoring race isn’t the same as not being racist. Despite racism being systemic and endemic to western, white society, nearly all white people are convinced they aren’t racist* because racism is bad and they are good, aren’t they? Take the characters in Admissions. Sherri Rosen-Mason (Maureen Keiller) is a pro-diversity admissions officer for Hillcrest prep school in New Hampshire. She works carefully with boomer coworker Roberta (Cheryl McMahon) to ensure that the school brochure contains diverse photos. Sherri’s husband, Bill (Michael Kaye) is the principal of Hillcrest and he celebrates Sherri’s work. 

They’ve raised their son Charlie (Nathan Malin, who plays teenage entitlement with sweet sincerity) right. Why, Charlie’s best friend is Black! The Mason family is on the socially acceptable, morally upright track until Charlie discovers that he was deferred acceptance into Yale but his friend got in. Charlie’s reaction to the news creates an upheaval that forces the family to examine what their beliefs truly are.   

Harmon juxtaposes conversational microaggressions against BS-cutting dialogue to show us the dichotomy with the Mason family. Bill says, “Life is not fair. It’s miserably unfair, but it’s not little white boys in private schools in New England who have it so bad.” Bill is telling Charlie one can work hard and still fail. No one gets extra credit for working hard when hard work is standard. Just because Charlie thinks he’s special, it doesn’t mean he’s more deserving. 

Keiller’s commendable performance had us laughing and cringing. Her tireless portrayal of Sherri Rosen-Mason hit some sore spots in the audience on the afternoon I attended. Sherri is an Everywoman. She looks and sounds a lot like people in the SpeakEasy audience. People who assume that they know what racism is because they attend the theatre and discuss current events. It makes the audience consider their own racism which makes them uncomfortable. 

Marianna Bassham and Maureen Keiller; photo by Maggie Hall Photography

Mariana Bassham is endearing as best friend and moral epicenter, Ginnie Peters. Ginnie must do the hardest work of the production: teach other white people that their racist behavior is wrong. Bassham embraces the role with necessary severity. 

I identified with Ginnie the most out of the characters in Admissions. As the white half of a biracial couple, I grapple with the fact that I will never fully comprehend the daily racism my partner experiences.  I fight on their behalf anyway. It is our responsibility as white people to believe people of color when they tell us racism is happening. White people don’t have to experience racism to believe it exists.   

Harmon asks his Admissions actors to perform multiple long speeches. Actors needing new audition material could look to this script for cuts. The roles of Charlie and Sherri require an actor to memorize a monologue up to five-minutes long. Roberta and Bill have monologues approximately three-minutes long. Monologues have kicky dialogue, show more than tell and fall into both comedic and dramatic catagories. 

The set design by Eric Levenson is beautiful. Sherri’s small, cupboard-like office rotates on the stage. The open concept kitchen set has shiny wood paneling and communal hang-out space for guests. It screams “rich, elite homeowners” to the audience. 

In a famous article by Chris Boeskool he said, “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” The Mason family is an example of what this looks like. Charlie feels abused by the system because he didn’t get into his dream college. In reaction to Charlie’s tantrums, Sherri and Bill decide to abuse their privilege to ensure he has a good college experience. They lean into white supremacy instead.  

 

*The road to Hell is paved with the good intentions of white people who think saying they aren’t racist exonerates them from accidental racist behavior. Thinking one isn’t racist doesn’t make it true. 

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