Tuesday, October 9, 2007
Theater Review: Permanent Collection
I can tell you definitively, that Permanent Collection grabbed my attention from the moment it started until the very end.
Socio-political theatre can galvanize, exhilarate, provoke, but it can also be wordy, obtuse, and boring. The thought of several actors standing on stage for over two hours having discussions about race, art, social status, economic status, and politics, would be a turn off to many potential audience members. I can tell you definitively, that Permanent Collection currently playing at the Jubilee Theatre grabbed my attention from the moment it started till the very end.
The playwright Thomas Gibbons partially fictionalized the events that happened at the Barnes Foundation, which in the play is called the Morris Foundation, to highlight the modern state of race relations in this country. The basic premise is that Sterling North, a black businessman played by Sean Massey, is appointed to be the Director of the foundation over the interim Director Paul Barrow played by Trey Walpole, who happens to be white. The unexpected twist in all of this is that Paul Barrow, is okay with his boss being black, for he is more of an art curator then a businessman.
What the playwright Thomas Gibbons has done is loaded a gun in a very unexpected way: Sterling discovers in the storage area of the museum a cache of African art of exquisite beauty and of such artistic value that they belong in the viewing areas along with the Renoir's, Cezanne's and Matisse’s. But they can’t be put on display because the Morris’ estate declared that nothing in the museum can be altered and Paul as the curator must insure that the terms of the will are carried out. It also must be noted that the museum has an unusual layout for the artwork for Mr. Morris incorporated art from all over the world and placed it side by side, thus creating not just a collection to be viewed like in a regular museum or gallery, but in essence he has used the art itself to create a collage and converted the entire museum into one enormous piece of art. A duel ensues. Sterling finds it unconscionable that the world is being deprived of this collection of African art and is determined to show how Africans, and by default blacks, have produced work that can rival the art of Europeans, and by default whites. Paul’s defense in not changing the museum’s viewable collection arises not just from his desire to protect the will, but because the way the artwork in the museum has been laid out in such a specific way, any alterations will affect the overall aesthetics since the art is serving a greater purpose.
Thomas Gibbons then gives us glimpses of Mr. Morris and his mindset in creating the collection. Mr. Morris, played by Eric Devlin, isn’t racist but he is a product of his time. He incorporated a few African pieces to the displays to show the relativism of what humans view as artistic and beautiful. The inclusion of African art was shocking at the time, but that wasn’t Mr. Morris’ intention, his purpose was truly noble. Nonetheless, he is a product of his era, and by not being as inclusive as today’s standards, it indicates he was unaware of his own racial bias. The playwright also adds to the mix a younger character by the name of Kanika Weaver, who is not only Sterling’s assistant but also Paul’s friend. Kanika, played by Shundra Grubb is brought in to replace Ella Franklin, played by Michele Rene, an older black lady who had served as Morris’s assistant. These two women are caught in the crossfire. Kanika’s character is representative of the newer generation that views racial politics differently: her world isn’t as polarized. Added to the mix is the reporter Gillian Crane, played by Lana K. Hoover.
The minefield is laid out, and the characters all enter it. A charge of racism is made towards Paul. A counter charge of intolerance and incompetence is made in return. The political and emotional chaos that ensues has devastating consequences to all the players.
The play is structured so that Act 1 is heavy on the "white bashing." As a white male sitting in the audience, I felt uncomfortable for many subtle truths about how my race operates in this county were being exposed. Nonetheless, it was fascinating. What really surprised me was in Act 2 when the play does a 180 degree turn and bashes blacks. Gibbons places an equally critical eye upon the black establishment. What was already fascinating became daring. Suffice to say, I was riveted throughout most of the play.
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The one thing that I most appreciated about this play was the fact that Gibbons gives us three generations of people that all think of themselves as tolerant and inclusive. Morris, is a product of his generation: his ideas of inclusion are dated. Paul and Sterling are representative of the boomer generation and how they became the first generation to achieve, at least on paper, equality for minorities. Yet they are so entrenched in their desire to do the correct thing, that they don’t see that they are themselves are continuing to weave the threads of racism. Kanika doesn’t care to participate in the racial politics for her generation is much more inclusive of all and sees these arguments as a vestige of an older generation, yet because this older generation is alive and well and in position of power she has to deal with the fact that this baggage is still being carried around. The most telling moment is when in frustration has to remind Sterling that she is black, and then a scene later she reminds Paul of the same thing.
Needless to say, the performers all did a very competent job of carrying this word-heavy play and make it palatable, and in fact so fascinating that the two hours flew by. Sean Massey’s opening monologue in Act 1 was a tour de force, but I wished he had imbued his character with more charm. I wanted to sympathize with him, but he only allowed me to empathize. Michele Rene has a smaller role, yet I felt like I knew her character inside and out with just the few lines she had. Trey Walpole and Lana K. Hoover are veterans of the stage and their effortless performances showed their mastery of their craft. Eric Devlin was so wonderfully quirky as Alfred Morris, that I found myself wanting to know more about this character. Lastly, Shundra Grubb was the standout for she was able to perform her character with such naturalism, that it was impossible to discern if she was being herself or acting.
Technically speaking, the show was OK. While the director Dr. Harry Parker was able to elicit wonderful performances from his actors, his staging felt a little forced at times. Part of the problem is that the script is so wordy and there is very little action in it. His blocking was forced; it seemed at times as though the actors were being moved on stage so as to avoid any potential visual monotony. The set was functionally adequate, nothing in particularly thrilling about it, but the lighting was executed quite nicely by Michael Skinner for it gave a feel of being in a gallery. The costumes by Barbara O’Donoghue were functional and character appropriate, but I didn’t ever get a sense of them being anything other then just clothes; seeing the amount of references to politics and art, a subtle theme could have been developed in the wardrobe.
This play is not for everybody, since it is rather intellectual and wordy. This said, if you enjoy thought-provoking theatre that will make you uncomfortable by rattling your beliefs, and you are up to the challenge, you will find Permanent Collection well worth the reward. I commend Jubilee Theatre for taking on such a daring production. Purchase tickets online or by calling 817-338-4411.
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