When I was attending my privileged independent school in Melbourne I genuinely thought that it was good to make toffees to sell at our stall to help support a mission school for poor Aboriginal children up in the Northern Territory. I thought that we should try to give them something that approximated our own education. It didn’t strike me until decades later that we could learn a huge amount from the First Australians — indeed, their relationship with and knowledge of the land is integral to our attempts to understand and try to navigate the world out of the disasterous consequences of climate change.
Members of the Melbourne Theatre Company audience are very much a replica of the people this play is about: mainly white, well educated, middle class, with ‘progressive’ opinions. Indeed, in the play all of the actors are white — we never see the people of colour who are, we are told, a significant part of their lives.
The setting for the play is Hillcrest, an elite, New Hampshire boarding school. The stage set shows a library of oak bookshelves holding 19th century tomes and the admissions manager’s office has solid antique furniture. In the first scene, a teacher is reprimanded by the admissions manager for producing a prospectus that ‘looks too white’ — she is trying to build up ‘diversity’, which means attracting more students of colour. But as the play progresses we come to realise that it is the ‘look’ that is important rather than the values.
Everything blows up and truths seep out when a Hillcrest student of colour is accepted into Yale and the admissions manager’s son (who is white and got good grades) is not. Charlie, the son, brilliantly played by William McKenna, is initially put out by the news — in the usual rivalling way when a friend wins something and you don’t. But then he decides that he doesn’t want to go to a prestigious college and he wants the money his parents would have spent on his Yale education to go towards a scholarship so that some less privileged student can attend Hillcrest. His parents absolutely refuse. There is no way that they will accede or even listen to their son’s arguments. In a typical privileged way the mother starts to make enquiries and pull some strings totally against her son’s wishes. It is far more important to the parents that their son go to Yale than that a student of colour get a scholarship to Hillcrest.
Would I do the same thing if I had a son who didn’t get into Yale? I hope not — but I have a sneaking feeling that I might be torn towards such behaviour, or I might just offer some token donation to salve my conscience. Altogether a brilliant play.