Why Are All the White Administrators Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?
Admissions looks at diversity in the wild world of top prep schools, but provokes tough questions of privilege in arenas far beyond that elite enclave. It runs at Seattle Public Theater through this weekend.
It’s fucking easy to make room at a table you don’t have to sit at.
— Charlie Luther Mason in Admissions
Sherri Rosen-Mason runs a tight ship. At home, her place is spotless, and the wine and Brie are always fully stocked. (The sour cream, though, has apparently seen better days.) Dinner is planned out; her son does his homework on time; and she and her husband have managed to amass enough on their prep school-administrator salaries to send the rising senior to whatever high-priced elite New England college he aspires to.
Meanwhile, at work, she’s an unwavering beacon of diversity. When she came on as the head of admissions, the school — in the White epicenter of New Hampshire — had a student body that was 94% White. Under Rosen-Mason, 15 years later, it’s now up to 19% People of Color. A success!
So why won’t her favorite diversity success story give the school a dime?
Welcome to Hillcrest Prep; where Middlebury is a safety school, Yale is the goal, and all the other Ivies are assumed early admits. That is, at least, for the well-curated résumés of the school’s top students, 17-year-old prodigies already assured they’ll get whatever they aspire to.
One of those 17-year-olds is Charlie Luther Mason — son of Bill Mason and Sherri Rosen-Mason, Hillcrest’s head of school and head of admissions, respectively — who just got wait-listed by Yale during the early admissions cycle. It’s a failing he attributes to affirmative action in various forms: racial preference at Yale admissions; gender preference at the school newspaper; a system set on squeezing out White boys. (“I got fucked. I got fucked. Just me.”)
It’s the teenager’s entitlement that’s on center stage here, and it’s intense to watch: brash, loud, unabashed. Benjamin McCormack makes a fantastic moody, over-confident, shit-grinning teenager; he’s incredibly convincing.
But his parents, who are subtler about it, have no problem working their connections to pull admissions strings unrelated to merit, either. Theirs is almost harder to deal with: celebration of “diversity” candidate preference while insisting, effectively, that their son is the most qualified of all. (There’s little evidence, by the way, that he’s particularly special, beyond being a good student at a good school.)
Where does their commitment to diversity end — or was it just a surface sheen anyway?
There’s no question this is Anne Allgood’s play. Allgood owns the stage like Sherri Rosen-Mason runs her domains: sharply and unequivocally. When she’s running over her pedagogical foes — like Barbara Lindsay’s wonderfully-played elder, Roberta (“I don’t see color. Maybe that’s my problem. I’m not a race person”), in the opening scene — it’s so lop-sided, it’s hard not to feel something for her target.
But Rosen-Mason isn’t always right, at least in as pure form as she’d like to have it, and it takes a strong cast of characters to dish it back. She’s got that, in both characters and casting that are spot-on: Kevin McKeon’s Bill (affable beneficiary of White male privilege); Macall Gordon’s Ginnie (resolute and exhausted parent of a biracial Hillcrest student); Lindsay’s Roberta (sincerely out-of-touch longtime Hillcrest staff member); and McCormack’s Charlie (a beacon of both entitlement and youthful fervor). It’d be tough to pick a better cast, and director Annie Lareau (also Artistic Director of Seattle Public Theater) gets the best out of them. The design team shines with them: a set (by Christopher Mumaw) that’s both impressive and functional, moving effortlessly between home and office; sound design (D.R. Amromin) that manages to anticipate exactly what song you want to hear (whether you know it or not); and costume (Kelly McDonald), lighting (Amber Lynne Parker), and props (Jenny Burkley) design that complete the picture and mood.
Playwright Joshua Harmon (Bad Jews, Significant Other) has wrought a very smart, observant, and none-too-outlandish script that skewers White privilege while throwing some softer jabs at diversity efforts run amok. Its central character contends with detractors on several fronts, including those pining for the old days (“Sometimes I don’t even recognize this place” / “Maybe that’s a good thing”), challenging her tactics (dismantling the “ethnocentric meal plan”), or accusing her of being anti-White (response: “Some of my best friends are White men!”).
But the play’s biggest punch is more subtle: the sense that it’s not any particular aspect of all this that matters most, as much as the fact that it’s generally the White folks who get to decide. (It’s summed up nicely by Charlie’s take on his dad’s legacy: “Bill Mason made the world a better place, and it didn’t cost him anything.”)
And such is the dance of position and privilege, diversity and aspiration. It’s easy to talk about “welcoming” everyone, “promoting” diversity. It’s all well and good until we talk about who has to give up what. Or, more precisely, until that person is you. Me. Us. The hard-working, well-meaning, good-people White folks.
How curious it is that the ones who can mean well, do good, promote diversity — the power-wielders, the gatekeepers — are the well-meaning White folks. (For a mere microcosm, look at the Seattle-area theatres who talk most about championing diversity. Now look at their artistic leadership.)
But Admissions doesn’t go there in so many words; it doesn’t proselytize or lecture. It lays things out in vivid terms and lets the audience chew on their complexities.
Watching Admissions is so horribly uncomfortable. And that’s precisely the beauty of it. Just as you’ve settled into the type of uncomfortable, it changes, quickly, into something else.
And though the last scene is cute, I would’ve preferred the whole thing end just before it. To sit with uncertainty. To sit with a new kind of uncomfortable, again.
The verdict: With a smart script that’s both subtle and explosive, a flawless cast, and direction and design work to match, SPT’s Admissions is sure to land on a Top Play list this year. Don’t miss it.
* Review title with thanks to Beverly Daniel Tatum’s seminal book, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?
Admissions runs through 2/23 at Seattle Public Theater at Green Lake. Tickets $39, available here. Accessibility notes: restrooms are all multi-stall and gender-neutral. Theatre is wheelchair accessible.
Ticketing notes: Admissions is mostly sold out online, though walk-up availability is likely. Free rush tickets offered to all theatre industry members and TPS members (subject to ticket availability).
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.