Players Circle Theater tackles issues of diversity, race and entitlement with its production of “Admissions”
In 2019, Joshua Harmon’s drama “Admissions” won both the Drama Desk and Obie Awards for Best Off-Broadway Play. The hype surrounding “Admissions” focuses almost exclusively on its subject matter: white entitlement and guilt. However, at its core, “Admissions” is a family drama. And this has Players Circle Theater co-founder and Artistic Director Bob Cacioppo drawing parallels between Joshua Harmon and legendary playwrights Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller.
“People will relate to the play in that it is a family drama. If you bring up Arthur Miller in particular, it’s about family,” said Cacioppo.
“The mother is the admissions officer at a private high school and the father is the headmaster. Their values are called into question when their son, who is the best student in the school – great SAT scores, lots of extracurricular activities – doesn’t get into Yale and his best friend, who is one-quarter black, gets into Yale.”
Players Circle Theater co-founder and Managing Director Carrie Lund, plays the mom. She describes what happens next as a family crisis.
As admissions officer, she’s worked night and day for 15 years to increase her school’s diversity, sometimes admitting less qualified minority applicants over more qualified white students in execution of her overarching goal to make the student body more closely reflect the mix of whites and minorities in the general population.
Now, suddenly, it’s her son, Charlie, who’s that more qualified white applicant that’s passed over for a candidate with lower SATs and less impressive grades and extracurricular activities. She doesn’t like it. Not one bit.
“When it comes home, I’m a momma bear and I’m going to protect my son and make sure that he gets whatever he needs to get ahead in the world,” said Lund. “And it’s in conflict with my own philosophy and beliefs.”
Charlie is played by Harvey Evans, a talented young phenom that Players Circle audiences enjoyed in last year’s production of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time,” but who has also wowed Southwest Florida theater-goers with his portrayals of Jack Kelly in “Newsies,” Jean Valjean in “Les Misérables” and Quasimodo in “Hunchback of Notre Dame.”
As Charlie, he is less than gracious when Yale passes him over for his bestie, Perry. He indicts the people at Yale who, just like his mother, unapologetically engage in a regime of racial preferences which fails to look beyond skin color when evaluating those seeking college admission. Here, he talks about what happened when he and Perry met with the admissions officers earlier that year.
“All those admissions officers with the same vague phony bullshit persona suddenly came alive. They looked at him more, made more eye contact with him, were just a little more interested in everything he had to say, laughed harder than they needed to at every dumb thing that came out of his mouth. Oh, feeling so good about themselves, so smug. Oh, they’re changing the world on the daily. And it’s like I’m standing right here. I’m a human being just like him and I’m standing … right ... here!”
Charlie’s diatribe goes on for a breathless ten minutes, and no one escapes his disgust for the white guilt that his parents and white classmates unabashedly display.
“And she was like, ‘It is so crushing to read so many white books. Why can’t we ever read books by people of color?’ And I was like ‘first of all, we barely read books by white people any more, thanks to my parents, actually, but also, you’re white Joanna! So what are you talking about? Do you hate yourself?’”
Then he launches headfirst into the way that the notion of ‘person of color’ has been co-opted in the all-encompassing effort to achieve greater diversity in everything and every place.
“And by the way, who decides? Because I would really like to meet the person who decides who counts as a person of color and who doesn’t, and who’s white and who’s not. And who’s Asian and descended from people on the continent of Asia because Armenia is in Asia and Kim Kardashian is half Armenian, so is Kim Kardashian a woman of color? Or do you have to be from specific countries in Asia to say you’re Asian?”
William Mahone plays Charlie’s dad and, as a Harvard law grad and long-time practicing attorney, he especially likes Charlie’s long rant about who is and is not a person of color.
“I think it’s a good visual illustration of what we’re talking about with diversity and the upside to it, the downside to it, the extent to which it can get carried to ridiculous extremes,” said Mahone.
“The long rant that Charlie goes into about what exactly is a person of color and by reference what are we trying to achieve by all of this quest to have more diversity… but I think the play is very, very funny the way it pokes fun at all sides of this debate. It pokes fun at the conservative side of the debate. It pokes a lot fun at the liberal side of the debate, and I’m going to be very curious to see how audiences will respond.”
Beyond the racial overtones and undercurrents at play, at its heart and in the end “Admissions” is a riveting examination of how this particular family helps their son negotiate his first major disappointment in life, but how he helps them, in turn, come to terms with their willingness to abandon their beliefs when racial fairness strikes too close to home, calling into question the quest for greater diversity and inclusivity in a country that purports to value meritocracy above all else.
In Artistic Director Cacioppo’s estimation, this makes “Admissions” the perfect Players Circle Theater production.
“There’s a lot of meat in the play, and it’s sometimes fun to go to a play and see a stupid play that makes you laugh like “Murder at the Howard Johnson,” but I like to do at least one play a year that is hip and new,” said Cacioppo.
“It’s always exciting … to give our audiences something that they can only see by flying to New York, getting a hotel and buying a ticket, and this, I think, is the hottest play available in America today.
When you go, be prepared for act two following this 95-minute one-act play.
“Act Two will be what they talk about over a glass of wine that night,” said Cacioppo. “Act Two will be their thoughts about the play the next morning over breakfast. And I feel that strongly about the play.”
“Admissions” is on stage at Players Circle Theater at the Shell Factory in North Fort Myers now through Jan. 22.
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