Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Liberal White Folks Being Liberal and White

The specificity of “Admissions” is a strength, though some disagree

I find strong opinions attractive. Even so, I was stunned when I pulled up the Vulture review of “Admissions,” the dynamic and challenging play that is going into its last weekend at TheatreLAB.

A show that delves into something juicy like this one invariably spurs me to Google what other, smarter people have said about it. Doing so is always interesting but sometimes disappointing when there is broad similarity to the reviews. That’s why I think the Vulture piece is worth considering in some depth.

Reviews of “Admissions” generally called the show “bitingly funny” filled with “smart” dialogue that reaffirms playwright Joshua Harmon’s skill “at articulating arguments, often at length.” Some folks have noted, as our own Julinda Lewis did, the particular newsworthiness of the play: it opened in Richmond just as Felicity Huffman was given a prison sentence for trying to buy her kid into college and the show was playing in DC in March just as that scandal broke, as the Washington Post pointed out.

Of course, the play’s exploration of the struggle to get into elite institutions is really a vehicle to dig into one of the thorniest of thorny issues: race. And that’s where the commentary gets complicated.

I walked away from “Admissions” almost 100% in line with Jesse Green’s take in The New York Times, feeling Harmon’s purposefully uncomfortable skewering of liberal white hypocrisy is “good satire at work,” it’s dramatization of diversity doubletalk being “[o]ne of the things the theater should be doing today.”

Then I read the Vulture piece which asserts that the play “misfir[es] wildly” and got knocked on my heels. Here’s what it made me realize: As an old liberal white guy, I have the luxury of walking away from a heady piece of challenging theater thinking, “good job, show!” Maybe, I thought, it’s worth listening to someone who instead ends up thinking Harmon is “having [his] ethical cake and eating it too.”

Brits tend to have a more nuanced view of some issues that get lost in the easily bifurcated American culture so it was interesting to find reviews of the London production that complained it “contributed almost nothing to the reasoned furthering of the debate” and contained “rather too much shouting.” Unfortunately, no review that I found dug into the meat of the issues; in fact, the more impactful reveal from these reviews for me was finding out that the production starred Alex Kingston, who I’ve loved since ER, triggering some retroactive regret that I didn’t fly to London to see it.

Here’s what I think Sarah Holdren of Vulture should be applauded for bringing into sharp focus: this isn’t really a play about fighting institutional racism. The cast is all white so actual people of color literally do not have a voice in the show. Their experiences and their struggles are only voiced by white people, sometimes dismissively or sarcastically. And the audiences who see the show are going to be largely white so I understand the inspiration behind Holdren’s exclamation “what are we all really doing here?”

But there’s plenty I think Holdren gets wrong, starting with a number mentioned in dialogue (the percentage of students of color at Hillcrest School is said to have started at 6 percent, not 4 percent; whether it’s rational or not, small, easily checked mistakes like that always irk me).

More importantly, what Harmon creates in the play (and what director Deejay Gray and his cast deliver in this excellent production) is a specific and personal story that reflects situations that are real, messy and hard. Holdren did not have access at the time of her piece to read this fascinating and recent deep dive into the actual dilemmas college admission directors face. Clearly, the reality is 10 times more complex than any playwright could imagine.

It is easy to be dismissive about a play about liberal white people and the (arguably) moderate challenge of staying true to your stated values when faced with personal adversity. But there are thousands and thousands of Americans facing that exact challenge and the answers aren’t easy. To pretend that the answers are literally black and white, as dad character Bill (David Clark) seems to suggest, is flatly dismissive and plainly reductive.

For one thing, there are conservative and libertarian groups very actively pushing verifiable statistics that show reverse racism, most directly against Asian students. One such study came out just two weeks ago showing that hundreds of white students were rejected from UVA and William & Mary despite having higher test scores and grades than black students.

Sure, the show’s central, powerful and expansive rant (masterfully delivered by Tyler Stevens playing the son, Charlie) swerves into esoteric territory when it asks whether Kim Kardasian is a POC. But we have a leading presidential candidate whose most ill-advised move was to suggest that her tiny genetic percentage of indigenous heritage qualified her to be considered Native American. So is it really a ridiculous question?

The Vulture piece chides we white folks for “feel[ing] like we’re grappling with something difficult, even as we’re being allowed to indulge in some pretty basically racist lines of thought.” The author seems to say those lines of thought all fall on one side but I’d say they fall all over the place: isn’t Sherri saying a biracial child “doesn’t read black” kinda racist? At the same time, virtually everything said by her oblivious assistant, Roberta, is clearly racist, so is Harmon really just rooting for one side?

Holdren also finds a trap that’s easy for a critic to fall into (I know I have): letting an audience’s reaction skew your own opinion. She says “[o]ur sympathies are plainly pushed toward Roberta in [the] opening scene.” Huh? As winning an actress as Jackie Jones can be, I don’t think anyone thought she was NOT clueless in my crowd, even in Richmond where “I really don’t see race” kind of sentiment flows freely. Holdren calls Sherri “unlikable and obviously self-deceiving.” Again, huh? Maybe it’s just that Donna Marie Miller can do nothing wrong right now, but she clearly won over folks at the Basement.

Where I knew Holdren had really veered into a different realm was talking about laughter breaking into outright cheers during Charlie’s rant. It was hard not to enjoy Stevens digging into the emotional depths of that scene but, while I certainly cheer his performance, even as he was rollicking through it, I felt the disquieting tug of conscience that Harmon delivers as a hard smack of parental scorn when Bill calls Charlie a “racist spoiled little shit.” Holdren says Bill’s counterpoint “doesn’t help much;” I sure felt it as a slap.

Maybe this is a testament to Gray’s directing skill but, while Holdren sees “a play whose ultimate argument and its very existence seem in conflict with each other,” I saw a fascinating crash of gnarly contradictions.

And, finally, something Holdren totally overlooks, and no one else I read seemed to pick up on at all, are the more subtle reflections of liberal whiteness that Harmon makes plain. The most striking example is when both Bill and Sherri turn to each other more than once and ask, “Who do we know?” as they try to wriggle out of the dilemmas Charlie presents. Is there anything more white and privileged than to think that a call to the right person can fix a problem? Just add the delivery of a tidy sum of cash as per Felicity Huffman and “Admissions” would almost be too true-to-life to be considered fiction.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Did Chelsea Burke solve the “Shrew” problem?

As the lights went down at intermission of Quill Theatre’s latest production, an all-female staging of “The Taming of the Shrew,” I leaned over to one of my companions and said, “I don’t think they’ve solved the problem.”

If you’re reading this, you know what I’m talking about. The brutal, jarring, incomprehensible-to-modern-audiences misogyny of “Shrew” has been fretted over for decades, with directors reworking it into a “Secretary”-style S&M liberation tale or gender-reversing the characters to subvert the dynamics, using the play’s framing device to add commentary or simply rewriting the ending to change the most uncomfortable parts. Regardless of its problems, “Shrew” keeps showing up on theater schedules on the regular, with productions on stage right now from California to Massachusetts, not to mention the RSC staging in London.


Some scholars have suggested the problem isn’t the play but our pesky determination to make modern sense of dated sensibilities. Maybe so but personally, I’d had enough “Shrew” after the 2006 Richmond Shakespeare Festival production, adding it to my growing “I never need to see that again” list. The ambitious but flawed 2013 staging did little to move me from my agreement with a London critic’s assertion that “Shrew” is “one of the most deeply unlovable of Shakespeare's plays.”

I doubted director Chelsea Burke’s choice to demasculate the cast would change much. The play’s problems are deeper than “Katarina is pommeled into subservience.” Bianca’s coy complicity in the courtship paradigm presents a somewhat-subtler sexism and her father Baptista holding a bidding war for the right to bed her (a bedding war?) is a face-palm worthy example of no-this-really-isn’t-funny tone-deaf banter.

So how did the wily Ms. Burke win me over by the end of this quote comedy unquote that is predicated on violence, submission and abuse? To borrow a phrase, she leaned into it.

I didn’t see the 2016 Shakespeare in the Park all-female cast version that Burke possibly borrowed this idea from (her director’s note is maddeningly oblique). But at least one article about that production talks about Katarina’s eyes being “wide and anxious” during her final speech and Bianca’s face “collapse[ing] into a mask of horror” as she listens. In her luminously intense portrayal in the current production, Michelle Greensmith delivers the monologue not as a lecture but as a plea, her every mannerism reflecting PTSD rather than happy subservience. Thanks to Greensmith, it’s impossible to shrug off the manipulation, gaslighting, and cruelty her character has experienced as some clever romantic plot. Shakespeare’s text hasn’t been changed but, in her direction of this moment, Burke infuses an appropriate level of #MeToo-era awareness into the scenario.

If that description makes this production seem like a heavy slog through a gender studies seminar, I can’t emphasize strongly enough that Burke’s amplification of the tragedy of Katarina works because of the delightful goofiness of the play’s action beforehand. Burke allows an exceptional crew of comic ladies to pepper their parts with asides, rejoinders and other funny business that bolster nearly every scene, punching up what is already some pretty spry repartee. Maggie Bavolack extends her already expansive range with her hilariously old Gremio, Allison Paige Gilman makes her plucky Tranio the comic lynchpin of the plot and Erica Hughes adds a sweet simpleton vibe to her late-in-the-action emergence as a key player (particularly observant folks will enjoy her unsung but very funny turn as an audience member early on).

The MVP (most vociferous provoker) of Laughter, however, has to be Desiree Dabney who has apparently never been in a scene that couldn’t be enhanced by a pulled face, under-her-breath adlib or other wisecrack reaction. She, along with many other cast members, regularly single out audience members to talk to, hand props to, and otherwise make directly personal what could otherwise be an alienating theatrical experience.

Burke seems to instinctively understand (again, some commentary would have helped) that breaking down that fourth wall, insinuating all of us in the fun and frivolity during most of the show, also indicts us all in the trials that befall Katarina. Her “comeuppance” is uncomfortable, more so because we’ve all been roped into a jaunty good time – complete with contemporary girl power songs that get toes tapping at the top of both the first and second acts.


Speaking of music, the 2016 NYC production apparently utilized Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation” as its coda, an angry anthemic F-you to the patriarchy. The pensive take on No Doubt’s “Just a Girl” that wraps up the action here is Burke’s final slice of genius, a song that, stripped of its perky ska beat, reinforces the similarities between now and 16th century Italy, rather than pointing to any progress.

Before anyone stamps a big QED on this production, claiming the problem definitively solved, Burke doesn’t escape all of the landmines Shakespeare embedded. If anything, the sweetness of Nora Ogunleye’s portrayal of Lucentio – the plot’s requisite “good guy” – makes the turn her character takes during the final wager between the show’s dude-bros even more problematic. And speaking formalistically, there’s no way around the Bard’s flagrant dismissal of the “show, don’t tell” proscription in scenes (e.g., the wedding) where particularly flamboyant off-stage action is described rather than enacted.

But I’d have to echo Style Weekly’s Claire Boswell in saying this comes as close to the “Shrew” I’ve always wanted, to the extent I’ve ever wanted a story of humiliation and misogyny wrapped up in deceptively pretty language. Though I’ve finally heard a version of this tune that I liked listening to, it doesn’t mean I wouldn’t prefer the song relegated to the (Not-So-) Golden Oldies bin forever.

(Quill’s “The Taming of the Shrew” runs at the lovely Agecroft Hall through August 4th.)