When playwright Josh Harmon’s Bad Jews played Studio Theatre in 2014, the production set box office records and multiple extensions. A remounting of the show the following year saw similar success.
Studio was more than thrilled to get a chance to showcase Harmon’s latest work, Admissions, a play that will force white liberals to examine some hard truths about race. The show opens today, January 16, 2019.
Admissions offers a no-holds-barred look at privilege, power and the perils of whiteness. The story introduces us to Bill and Sherri, a married, progressive white couple who serve as headmaster and dean of admissions at a mid-tier New Hampshire boarding school. Their work to diversify the school has been noteworthy as, although the school is in a predominantly white area, enrollment for students of color is up to 18 percent.
Their lives start to crumble when son Charlie sees his Ivy League dreams vanish and takes drastic action, while Sherri works to secure the privileges for her son.
“There are only white people on stage in this play and it’s a play about what white people say to each other when they think nobody but other white people are listening.”
A graduate of both Harvard and the Yale School of Drama, director Mike Donahue is familiar with Ivy League schools and their student population.
“A lot of people talk about this as a play about race and affirmative action, including the education gap, but for me, what Josh is actually writing about is narrowly and specifically a question of white entitlement and white privilege and the type of blind spots that even well meaning, good intentioned liberals have when it comes to understanding and seeing their own privilege and the kind of toxicity that comes with having to encounter and unpack your entitlement,” Donahue says. “I think Josh is doing it with virtuosic incredible language, and I think those are conversations we need to be having more now.”
The director was drawn to the play for that reason and looks for projects that will make people open their minds and talk.
“There’s a lot about this country that feels very broken right now, and for many people, the realization that we’re still living in a racist country and that structural racism is part of the world we are living in is not new, but that conversation in the last couple of years has entered the popular culture and zeitgeist in a new and more conscious, articulate way,” Donahue says. “For white people, it could be really hard to talk about that. I think so many people grew up thinking that to be good and not be racist, we just avoid it, but talking about it and acknowledging it is the only way that we are all going to move forward and I think that this play will inspire and demand conversation.”
Admissions received an Edgerton Foundation New Play Award, the 2018 Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding New Off-Broadway Play, and the 2018 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play.
Donahue has known Harmon somewhat socially for years as they share close mutual friends and have sat at the same table at weddings, but they were more acquaintances than friends when the director was asked to head this production.
“I have always admired his work from afar,” he says. “I saw Bad Jews and was blown away by it and had a number of friends who had worked with him. I was excited to get to spend some time in his world with his language.”
Yet as much as this is a language-driven play, Donahue understood that the delicate tone of the words was just as critical to the play and he likens the script to a verbal Olympics for some of the actors.
at Studio Theatre
January 16 – February 17, 2019
Details and tickets
“There are these incredibly long 2-3 page speeches that are just incredibly intricate in arguments and the way people debate,” he says. “But the play is really funny and about these people who are by and large hyper intellectual and incredibly articulate. The verbal warfare and debate of the play is pretty thrilling.”
That can sometimes be a challenge to a director, and Donahue admits it requires some real rigor and specificity from everyone in the room.
“The arguments are so intricate and I think Josh is so sophisticated in how he weaponizes and wields language. It requires focus and specificity because it’s easy for language to get emotionally overwrought and easy for language to become humorless if you are not mining the humor that is so inherent in how people debate this stuff,” he says. “I think it takes a lot of focus from everyone. There’s a nimbleness that is required in the levity. That’s challenging because of how emotionally raw it is.”
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Scenes like that required some important casting choices and Donahue has found some top talent in Kevin Kilner as Bill, Meg Gibson as Sherri, Ephraim Birney as Charlie, Sarah Marshall as Roberta and Marni Penning as Ginnie.
“The characters in Josh’s writing are all people who are trying to be good people and want to be good people, but they are all flawed and have blind spots, and over the course of the play they have to reckon with their flaws and become more self-aware and have to learn how to process things with greater nuance,” Donahue says. “Because of that, it was important to find actors who you can root for and get behind.”
Donahue, who previously directed Rachel Bonds’ Curve of Departure and world premiere of The Wolfe Twins at Studio, enjoys working at the theater and feels their spaces are inspirational for any director.
“The rooms really lend themselves to a real intimacy,” he says. “I have found the audiences are incredibly smart in that they listen really carefully and closely. I think the two plays I have done before were both gorgeous and Rachel’s language is so seemingly quiet—the events of her plays reveal that much larger tectonic plates are shifting in people’s lives. It requires tuning the room so people are listening but also having an audience that wants to listen. Playing her material here has been such a joy for us.”
He feels Harmon’s work and language will feel even more important in the space.
“What is great about the space is you can sniff out anything that feels fake really quickly,” Donahue says. “The play is a satire and I think Josh is a provocateur and likes provoking people. It’s funny in part because it skewers some people in some ways of thinking that are uncomfortable and difficult to talk about.”
When people leave the theater, Donahue wants them feeling the need to debate the emotions and thoughts that the play conjures up.
“I want them talking to their loved ones about this and going home and talking to their families about it,” he says. “There are only white people on stage in this play and it’s a play about what white people say to each other when they think nobody but other white people are listening. Depending on who comes to this play, I think people will have very different experiences and understanding of structural racism. There’s nothing I’m hoping will singularly land for everyone. My guess is people will have wildly different reactions depending on who they are and what life they have led before entering the theater.