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.

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