Alumnus in admissions debuts play on privilege

by Mark Gartsbeyn / Beacon Staff • March 17, 2016

Emerging playwright MJ Halberstadt ‘10 works in the admissions office.
Emerging playwright MJ Halberstadt ‘10 works in the admissions office.

Whether he’s penning plays for the stage or fielding phone calls, MJ Halberstadt ‘10 tries to confront the idea of privilege. The senior assistant director of undergraduate admissions, he wants to consider the intersecting matrices of race and opportunity at his desk and onstage. 

“If [I] go too far down the rabbit hole in one direction, then I would be stuck writing plays with characters who are all white, gay, able-bodied, cis men,” Halberstadt said. “And I don’t think that’s terribly interesting, even though I have written that play.”

This month saw the premiere of Halberstadt’s newest show, The Launch Prize. Halberstadt, a 27-year-old and performing arts alumnus, has written several successful full-length shows in the past. This show netted him his first Boston Globe review

The Launch Prize is presented by Bridge Repertory Theater of Boston, which Halberstadt helped found, at the Stanford Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts. The pavilion is a South End venue managed by the Huntington Theatre Company. Around 40 people came to the Monday night showing of the play, which runs until Sunday, March 20. 

It opens with a multicultural group of four MFA students setting up their graduate thesis projects in a gallery. Large hanging rectangular canvases in red, blue, yellow, and white a la Piet Mondrian circled the space. The play was in the round, with an audience surrounding the action on three sides.

Soon, the foursome finds a sealed envelope addressed to their mentor. Its contents: the name of the winner of the much-coveted Launch Prize. They’re aching to open it, much like the high school seniors waiting for their admissions emails from Emerson this week, but they’re hesitant—isn’t it illegal to open someone else’s mail? When the friends speculate on who nabbed the career-catapulting award, they inevitably land on the topic of demographics and privilege. 

The cynical Sebastian, who is half-Mexican, notes the recent pattern of the prize going to minorities and women after decades of white men. He asserts that it’s just “trendy to have artists of color.” Michelle, who embraces her African-American identity in her work, rejects this notion and is sure that the prize is based only on artistic merit. Kim forgoes her identity and goes by the pseudonym Tuesday Last; she doesn’t want the judges to know about her “super Asian last name.” Irish character Austin is well-intentioned but clueless; he wants to visit the big cities in Europe, “because that’s like where all art history is.” A schism forms between the artists as they divide the gallery with painter’s tape.

Bay Villager Bill Nigreen, 69, said he liked the confrontational nature of The Launch Prize

“I imagined myself in that real situation, down at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts or something,” Nigreen said. “And here were the students who had to deal with all these things, so much of which has not been said. To have it all spelled out from so many perspectives sort of enlightened me to what is really going on in people’s heads. That in some ways is a microcosm for the rest of society.”

Olivia D’Ambrosio, the producing artistic director of Bridge Repertory, said that she was extremely proud of the play. 

“It addresses race in a way that I think is fresh and not heavy-handed, but thought provoking,” D’Ambrosio, 32, said. “I don’t think it tries to be ‘the Great American Race Play,’ in a good way. These characters are really alive and vibrant, and these four actors do them great justice.”

She said she met Halberstadt through an actor colleague, who is also a founding member of Bridge Rep. 

“I loved him the first time I met him, I love his plays,” D’Ambrosio said. “He’s a great person and colleague in every way, artistically, personally, professionally. He was a good match.”

Halberstadt, who got an MFA in playwriting from Boston University in 2013, said the idea for The Launch Prize started in an Emerson class. The elements of race and opportunity weren’t originally present.

“I took the idea in a direction that felt totally irresponsible at the time,” Halberstadt said. “While I was there, I sent the play to two friends of mine, who are both actors of color. I basically ‘asked permission’ to write this play.”

He acknowledged that as a white man, the play is not intended to be about racial identity

“For me, I think it’s more an examination of privilege, an examination of the experience of being a person of color,” Halberstadt said. “And I don’t presume to write this with any semblance of expertise on the subject.” 

When he works as the senior assistant director of undergraduate admissions, Halberstadt concerns himself with many of the same questions as The Launch Prize.

“More than anything, I feel like my admission hat is on when I think about this kind of thing. When you’re sculpting an incoming class, there are factors that you want to think about and factors that you don’t want to think about, but you have to think about,” Halberstadt said. “It gets messy. There’s no clear cut way to honor a person’s experience.” 

Halberstadt criticized the concept of racial blindness, especially in the context of college admissions.

“It’s often held up as some kind of ideal, and I don’t know what that accomplishes,” Halberstadt said. “I don’t think it’s appropriate. I think there’s a difference between judging a person based on their race and providing the person equity with sensitivity to demographic details.”

He compared a first-generation black college student and a privileged white student with

masters degree holding parents and older siblings at Ivy schools. What if they both had a 3.3 GPA, he wondered?

“It’s one thing to say, ‘Oh, those students are equal,’” Halberstadt said. “I don’t think that’s correct. I think that in this case, the first student has demonstrated much more resilience than the latter.”