“Open Admissions” (written by Shirley Lauro, published in 1979, premiered on Broadway in 1984)
This is a play about race and speech (speaking/writing) in higher education. I only had the One Act version play available. “Open Admissions” has three versions (Two Act, One Act, and Teleplay). I read the One Act version which was available in Political Playwriting (a book I am currently reading). I will discuss the One Act version.
It’s funny I came across this play, because there had been a lot of discussion on Tumblr about speech, racism, and level of education. The notion is that if you speak “white,” you are perceived as respectable, well-educated and more intelligent. If you speak “black,” you are perceived as stupid, ghetto, dangerous, and ignorant. There were discussions on Tumblr about upper-class white academics who speak in such academic mumbo-jumbo jargon, that their words are inaccessible to folks everywhere who are not well-versed or well-read. I have provided links below if you want to read.
“Open Admissions” One-Act version only has two characters: Professor Ginny (well-educated white woman and Shakespeare scholar who holds B.A, M.A and Ph.D) and Calvin Jefferson (a 18 years old black male who just entered college three months ago). The play is set in New York City, at an un-named New York City public college.
Calvin has just been granted open admission into college and he is determined to make a good life for himself. He wants to meet with Dr. Ginny (who teaches Speech and English) and asks her one question: why does she always give him a B, and nothing else? Not even a C or F or an A? He asks her how he can improve himself and learn more things. He is determined to improve his writing and speaking skills, and learn new skills. He wants to be graded harshly so that he can be motivated to do better.
Professor Ginny, at first, is dismissive toward him and insists that he did a “good job.” He does not believe her, and for good reason. He says that he’s messed up a lot in class, and doesn’t deserve a B. He also points out that the other black students in class all receive a B, while white students get graded differently. He also brings up another issue: when the students were assigned to perform Shakespeare scenes, Dr. Ginny made all the black students perform scenes out of Othello or other scenes with black characters, while white students had plenty of choices to choose from different Shakespeare plays. Calvin asks her why black students had no choice in what scene to perform. In other words: why are black students expected to perform black characters, while white students could play ANY character, regardless of race? In response to this, Dr. Ginny acts as if Calvin is being crazy.
Dr. Ginny reminds me of racist white liberals who claim they see no race, and that race shouldn’t matter. She doesn’t realize that her internalized racism pushes down black students and she ignores them, while she encourages and motivates white students to do better and improve their skills. She doesn’t care about black students and doesn’t try to push them harder. She just gives them a “B” and says “good job,” while she encourages white students to do better.
As a deaf person of color, I’ve remember this happening too many times in public and private school, both deaf and hearing. In college, I was required to take certain class to fulfill my B.A degree for Theatre. I had to either take 18th century British or 18th century American literature class. I thought I’d take 18th century British literature, because I was born in the UK and I was familiar with British literature. Unfortunately, the class was difficult and inaccessible to me, and the professor always spoke in jargon crap. He made NO efforts to have interesting, lively discussions on 18th century British literature. I was failing and doing poorly. That professor even asked to meet me in private and he told me to consider dropping the class. He brought up my deafness as a possible obstacle to doing well in school. I got deeply offended and angry that he thought I was failing because I’m deaf! No, I was failing the class because he was doing a SHITTY JOB teaching 18th century British literature to us. I was a lover of British literature, yet I was failing.
In the play, Calvin becomes frustrated with the lack of progress in their conversation. Dr. Ginny continues being dismissive toward him and he becomes upset. He asks Dr. Ginny to TEACH him. How can he improve his grades and do better in class? Teach me, teach me. TEACH ME!!! he yells at her, that’s YOUR JOB! YOU ARE A TEACHER. TEACH ME!
Dr. Ginny then relents and she sits him down, and then criticizes his speech. Instead of teaching him, she CRITICIZES him and corrects his speech. Calvin has “street” speech. Dr. Ginny says that people are perceived by others based on how they speak. Calvin is shocked by her patronizing attitude toward him.
It is a teacher’s job to teach, motivate, educate, and give constructive criticism. It is not the teacher’s job to constantly criticize and tear down the student. Or in this case, to whitewash the (black) student and try to teach him how to speak “white.”
Dr. Ginny does not make any efforts to teach Calvin to write and read better. Instead, she just criticizes and corrects his speech. He’s sitting there, dumbfounded by her paternalistic, white-privileged attitude.
During the play, Dr. Ginny bemoans about how she’s being overworked and hasn’t been promoted to a better teaching position despite having teached at the college for over 12 years and holds a Ph.D in Shakespeare studies. At this, Calvin retorts “and I’m supposed to feel sorry for you?” He is an eighteen years old black male who is trying to turn his life around and yet he’s expected to feel sorry for a privileged white woman who holds a Ph.D in Shakespeare studies and teaches at a New York City college!
Open Admissions (One-Act version) is a great example of white privilege and internalized racism in white academia. It’s a good play, and I would like an opportunity to direct this play onstage if I could.