In Joshua Harmon’s ‘Admissions,’ the Real Test Is Racial Quotas

On stage, should a white character speak for her unseen Black husband and biracial child?

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Jessica Hecht, Andrew Garman and Ben Edelman in Joshua Harmon's "Admissions." Photos: Jeremy Daniel.

Lincoln Center Theater’s Mitzi Newhouse stage this season has hosted two serious ruminations on the challenges of parenting and navigating the unpredictable waters of secondary school to college. In Dominique Morriseau’s Pipeline, a Black mother in a public high school fights to keep her child in the prep school she has fought to place him in. White, Black and Hispanic cultures and themes are represented by the divorced parents, their son, his girlfriend, and the mother’s colleagues.

Joshua Harmon’s currently running Admissions, on the other hand, features an all-white cast of characters pondering their lives, and the lives of Black and biracial characters who are kept offstage, at a tony New England prep school. The themes of Pipeline and Admissions, though they may resonate separately, together ask a question: How far can, or will, parents go to ensure the educational futures of their children? In Admissions, white characters talk about race amongst themselves, with challenging results.

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Sherri (calm, resolute Jessica Hecht) has headed up admissions for Hillcrest School for 15 years, steadily diversifying the student body and enhancing her professional reputation. Her husband Bill (affable, sometimes explosive, ultimately creepy Andrew Garman), is the headmaster. These middle-class parents took their jobs, in part, to give their son, Charlie (intense Ben Edelman), a free ride at a pricey school — a chance to jump-start a life of privilege. Then there’s Ginnie Peters (Sally Murphy), mother of Charlie’s best friend Perry, and the wife of another teacher at the school. We don’t meet Perry or his father. It takes several scenes to learn that Ginnie’s husband is Black — making Perry biracial.

Jessica Hecht and Ann McDonough review brochure layouts.

Admissions ends with Sherri pondering the public and private aftermath of the annual process that is implied by the title. It’s in the way she arrives at that moment where Harmon centers his drama. For example, Sherri challenges a colleague, Roberta (Ann McDonough), to redesign the school brochure to reflect the kind of diversity she envisions. At first their conversation feels superficial. But then the profound issues of the play move to the fore when Sherri makes clear to Roberta that when she says diversity, she means skin color: show diversity to sell the school. Roberta pushes back — and in ways that other characters, in other ways, will later echo: tell me who; tell me which colors; tell me why the biracial student pictured doesn’t pass muster; tell me how to fit people into boxes.

Sally Murphy as Ginnie receives the call.

Charlie and Perry applied to Yale as their first choice. Sherri and Ginnie compare notes on the understandable stresses of waiting for admissions decisions. When Ginnie learns that Perry got in, Sherri responds with genuine joy — as a friend, as a professional. She also understands that Perry’s acceptance to Yale is also good for the reputation of Hillcrest School.

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A few beats later, we’re deep into the question: What about Charlie? Indeed, once Charlie enters, it’s all about him. He’s been alone in the woods. He tells his worried parents, who had been trying to reach him for hours, that he was working out his frustration at Perry’s acceptance — and his own wait-listed status — with primal screams and by blaming his parents, his school, the system. He’s a disappointed toddler, albeit one with great verbal skills, as he bellows for 10 minutes that feels longer. That director Daniel Aukin situates Charlie’s parents at the end of the stage listening quietly as their son lets loose a screed of disappointment, speaks volumes about how this young man was raised, indulged to expect the world to come to him. At last, when Bill declares him spoiled, the audience feels affirmed but nothing is really answered. What’s the next step for Charlie?

Charlie ponders his future.

As a matter of dramaturgy, there are real challenges when a white character speaks for her unseen Black husband and her also-unseen biracial child. Still, in Harmon’s script, Ginnie counters Sherri’s beliefs about race simply by opening her eyes. She cites the limitations of her husband’s career — going unpromoted despite his qualifications. She acknowledges an assumption that affirmative action perhaps played some role in Perry’s acceptance to Yale. Indeed, she wants race boxes to disappear from admissions applications. As Roberta, the pamphlet-creating colleague, repeats throughout the play, “I don’t see color.” Yet for Sherri, such boxes connote success, promoting “equality” as her way to change the world.

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Riccardo Hernandez’s spare and flexible set toggles between Sherri’s home and office, with a center table, a spectacular upstage stairway, inset kitchen appliances, and couches at the rim of the playing space. Mark Barton’s stunning, finely etched lighting captures deep shadows, tracks subtle movements, and parallels Aukin’s fluid staging, with characters often passing each other as one scene flows into the next. Jessica Hecht is on stage throughout, seamlessly shifting Toni-Leslie James’ costumes with a slight additions here or a slight subtraction there.

Admissions should have been opened up to depict characters of color first-hand. Still, the play offers a layered, if often troubling visit with white characters discussing race. It’s really Charlie, the adolescent man-boy who so frustrates us with his monumentally self-involved monologues, who lays out the most rational, articulate critiques of white people’s current views of race. They toured the campus, but they haven’t mastered the curriculum.