Round House Theatre’s production of Thomas Gibbons’ Permanent Collection is a reminder that some of the most memorable theatre arises out of confrontation. The battle over control of an art museum and foundation provides an excellent setting for a study of racial politics. The result is an intelligent and provocative work that will leave the audience thinking long after they have left the theatre.
Sterling North (Craig Wallace) is a proud and successful African-American businessman who has been chosen to take over the Morris Foundation. The Foundation owns a rich collection of mostly impressionist artworks (Cézanne, Matisse, etc) that had been collected by the eccentric Alfred Morris (Lawrence Redmond) and left to a small historically black college upon his death. When North proposes to change the permanent collection display by adding eight pieces of African art from storage, a battle ensues with the long-time Director of Education Paul Barrow (Jeff Allin) who is devoted to protecting Morris’ vision.
One of the distinguishing characteristics of Permanent Collection is the fact that the characters have a full modern awareness of the power and the pitfalls of racial politics. When North describes Barrow as a racist in an interview with reporter Gillian Crane (Susan Lynskey), it is clear he fully understands the tactical value of the accusation. Similarly, both men know how Barrow’s accusation of North as playing the “race card” will be understood by their respective supporters.
The play is rich with irony. At different times, both men ask the audience to “put yourself in my place,” yet neither is able to appreciate the other man’s position. Barrow in particular gives a passionate speech about his belief in the ability of art to expand and change your point of view, yet he is seemingly trapped in a traditional view of art and a slavish devotion to the eclectic layout of the museum.
Gibbons presents the arguments of the two men in an even-handed manner. He cleverly has these arguments occur between two distinctive yet flawed characters. While North can be arrogant and dismissive of underlings, these are defensive mechanisms adopted by an intelligent and talented man. North has chafed at being shunted into community relations in the corporate world and being subject to having his Jaguar stopped by policemen for what amounts to “DWB” – driving while black. Similarly, Barrow is a rumpled academic fellow, divorced and childless, with no life aside from the museum where he has worked for twenty-five years. His devotion to the collection and Morris’ vision are more understandable given his personal history.
Permanent Collection features an outstanding cast. Wallace exudes power and control as North, a man who with no tolerance for dispute or disloyalty. Allin makes believable the transition of his character from disinterested liberal academic to bitter protest leader.
Among the supporting case, Jessica Frances Duke gives a heartfelt performance as Kanika Weaver, a young African American woman who gets caught in the crossfire. Susan Lynskey is an intelligent provocateur who draws out the feelings of the two men. Jewell Robinson is memorable in a small but important role as Ella Franklin, a museum employee who serves as the voice of reason. Finally, Lawrence Redmond nearly steals the show with his wickedly funny monologues as the deceased Alfred Morris.
Director Timothy Douglas works to keep the action moving even when the intermittent monologues and didactic speeches threaten to slow the action. The ability of the audience to appreciate the importance of the art museum is enhanced by the grand gallery set of Tony Ciskei. The set’s ability to glow and change nicely underscores the way the play’s conflicts depend upon differing perspectives of the art.
In Permanent Collection, Gibbons seems pessimistic about our ability to surmount racial issues. Perhaps all we can hope to do is to “keep the lights on” as the new curator states at the end of the play. Yet this stirring depiction of the damage that can result from racially-tinged disputes (based upon the real-life case of the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia) should inspire us to do better.
by Thomas Gibbons
directed by Timothy Douglas
produced by Round House Theatre
reviewed by Steven McKnight
Permanent Collection runs thru Feb 21, 2010.
For details, directions and tickets, click here.