Race is a tricky subject to tackle in any medium. Take one wrong turn, and your piece becomes offensive and you’re booed off the stage. Go too saccharine or over-the-top, and your piece loses its believability, therefore making it all but worthless. There are so many pitfalls in creating a piece that examines race, that when one comes along that not only creates an engaging narrative, but also starts an intriguing conversation about privilege and diversity, then one can’t help but stand up and pay attention. Joshua Harmon’s Admissions is one such play, being given a solid production by Jarrott Productions, the story of how one family is forced to face their own prejudices when their son faces rejection from his college of choice, while his friend, part-black, gets admitted. What follows is not your standard demonization of racism or a treatise on white guilt, but a subtle, thorough examination of how privilege and millennial social structures can make the gulf between social responsibility and white pride surprisingly narrow.
There are those actors whose name alone brings a smile to the face, whose presence in a program alone will elevate a piece. Rebecca Robinson is one such name. She tackles each role with an emotional acuity that allows her to transform every time, though one does begin to wonder if she’s becoming a tad typecast as of late. As Sherri, she has to walk a tricky high-wire act, where, even in the earliest moments of the play, her character runs into a number of race-related potholes. Celebrated for the diversity that she brought to the school (eighteen percent!) as its Admissions Director, her beliefs are put to the test when she faces the results of a set of admission standards in her own home. The way she struggles in the face of these challenges makes for an fascinating character, and in the wrong hands this would all fall apart in a mess of screams and sobs, but there’s something about the way Robinson shapes her emotions that makes even the most volatile moments take on crystalline, multi-faceted shape. Her anger is not just anger, but a mix of frustration, sadness, regret, privilege, and you feel it all with every conversation she has. The nuance she brings to the role adds a humanity, an earnestness to the proceedings, that helps ground the action, helping us to relate to not just her character, but also those around her, which is the sign of a particular strong actor. It’s always a delight to see Robinson on stage, and Admissions is proof of just why she’s so celebrated in this city.
On the other side of the coin is another element I love to see in a work, a talented newcomer. Tucker Shepherd plays Charlie, Sherri’s son and a bright, intelligent, opinionated young man, who, as the play begins, has just found he was not getting into Yale. The emotional intelligence that Shepherd brings to this role is nothing short of staggering, especially given his young age and inexperience on the stage. He has one tricky monologue early on, where he is forced to confront his own privilege and racial tendencies (and even sexism), going on off on a tirade that would crucify the character in lesser hands. It’s a compliment to his commitment and courage as an actor that when he finishes, we’re left not just with contempt, or even pity, but a sense of understanding. Charlie is also the role that goes through the most changes over the course of the play, leaving Shepherd with quite a bit of heavy lifting. but the actor proves himself up to the task, turning and twisting the psychological journey of his character in a understated, delicate way, that keeps audiences engaged and sympathetic. The actor has quite a future ahead of him, and if his future performances can be of this high a caliber, we can hope but see him again sooner rather than later.
In a play as heady and powerful, a little bit of levity can go a long way, and that is just what Jennifer Underwood brings to the table as Roberta. The unfortunate creator of the university’s admissions brochure, she’s tasked with showing a more diverse student body in the brochure’s images, and the steps she takes to make this happen is nothing short of hilarious. Like every character in the play, she’s forced to come to terms with her own racial insensitivities, though through her we see how they can take a more subtle form. Roberta claims to not “see race”, and goes too far when tasked with showing a more “diverse student body”, but her intentions are good, and she never acts out of malice. There’s an undeniable charm and sweetness that Underwood brings to the table, a sense that even at her character’s most stern or inept moments, we can’t help but love and understand her. The actress makes sure the character doesn’t come off as one-note or hokey, bringing personality to the role that might not have been evident on the page. We don’t spend very long with the character of Roberta, but Underwood makes sure those moments are memorable, and hilaroius.
Admissions had a challenge the moment it began, in that any examination of race was going to be studied with a fine-toothed comb. Fortunately, this subtle, intriguing examination of race and privilege was not just intelligently crafted, but the production it was given was fine-tuned (which we’ve come to expect from director David Jarrott), and played with rare emotional intelligence. The actors show respect for their themes, giving them room to breathe and live, never straying into cloying or radical territory, but always remaining aware of the more sensitive aspects of the optics at play, creating an engrossing, heartfelt, and delicate work of art. It can be a difficult sit at times, and one that forces us to examine our own privilege, but isn’t coming away a changed, or even better, person the sign of a truly successful piece of theatre?
Admissions is playing at the Trinity Street Playhouse through October 6th. For more information, and to purchase tickets, please visit jarrottproductions.com.
Photo courtesy of Jarrott Productions.