by John Stoltenberg
“Some of my best friends are white men,” says Sherri, the very liberal white woman who handles admissions at a small New England prep school. Avowedly antiracist, Sherri is on a mission to increase the proportion of people of color in the student body. She cares, she really cares, as does her equally liberal husband Bill, who is dean of the school. Yet even as that tone-deaf admission blurts out of her mouth in an impassioned argument about race favoritism in recruiting—a quota bias that may have kept Sherri and Bill’s shiningly bright son Charlie out of Yale—she catches herself and hears herself…and the audience gasps and laughs at her gaffe.
Awkward moments like that abound in Admissions, Joshua Harmon’s edgy new comedy about whiteness. Stuff keeps getting said by well-meaning white people that comes out sounding so righteously off-key it’s both horrifying and hilarious. Scintillating socially conscious comedy is Harmon’s strong suit, and Admissions is every bit the equal of his runaway hit, Bad Jews. It’s even nervier, as evidenced in the grippingly good production at Studio directed pitch perfectly by Mike Donahue. What makes Admissions not only satisfying as popular entertainment but momentous as modern playwriting is how shrewdly Harmon holds up for embarrassment and amusement his characters’ unbearable whiteness of being.
It’s ridiculously easy these days for white liberals to condemn the rhetoric of white nationalism. It costs nothing and it pays off, like a no-risk rewards program. In certain progressive circles, sanctimonious scorn for white arrogance is not so much a politics of resistance as a ritual of virtue signaling. Like being in the correct club. Like wearing a name badge that says “Hi, I’m not a deplorable.” And the result is that such piety becomes yet another comfort zone for wypipo.
The young white playwright Joshua Harmon gets this. Admissions is a scathingly caustic satire that explicates and lacerates some of white liberalism’s most smug self-perceptions. Which means for anyone who fancies themselves woke to the ways white privilege works in the real world, Admissions is a must-see.
Charlie has a show-stopping rant when he learns his classmate and best friend Perry, who is black, has gotten into Yale while Charlie, who thinks he’s more qualified, didn’t. Charlie knows the talk to walk—he has been well raised by two progressive parents and is exceptionally gifted. But he is stung to his core when his presumptions of privilege are upended; and in aggrieved exasperation, he lets loose with an eruption of racist animus that horrifies his parents, the audience, and ultimately himself. What Harmon’s script does next is breathtaking: It tracks Charlie’s coming to terms with what actual commitment to racial equality must cost. Charlie’s character arc thereafter becomes more than just another white character’s journey to enlightenment. It cuts to the quick of what white enlightenment can even mean.
“I don’t have white pride,” says Charlie at one point, “but I’m not ashamed.” Admissions asks us to ask how for anyone born white in white supremacy that can possibly be true.
It is an explosively brilliant play.
Running Time: One hour and fifty minutes, with no intermission.