note: entire contents copyright 2004 by Carl A. Rossi
Sterling North … Clark Jackson
Ella Franklin … Sylvia Ann Soares
Paul Barrow … Benjamin Evett
Alfred Morris … Paul D. Farwell
Kanika Weaver … Giselle Jones
Gillian Crane … Tracy Olivero
Two seasons ago, Zeitgeist Stage produced Thomas Gibbons’ provocative BEE-LUTHER-HATCHEE; at the two performances I attended, the actors sadly outnumbered the audience. Hopefully, Mr. Gibbons’ PERMANENT COLLECTION, receiving its New England premiere at New Repertory Theatre, will have a happier fate for it, too, provokes as well as entertains and now that conformity, acquiescence and indifference are sweeping across this country it is good to have Mr. Gibbons pushing the right/wrong buttons and getting Americans riled up and agitated, again.
Race relations are at the heart of both plays: in BEE-LUTHER-HATCHEE, an acclaimed autobiography supposedly written by a black woman turns out to be penned by a white man; the black publisher, despite a personal as well as professional identification with the book, exposes the book as a hoax, prompting the question: does one race has the right, let alone the qualifications, to be the voice of another? In PERMANENT COLLECTION, Sterling North, a well-educated black businessman becomes president of the Morris Foundation, a private art collection known for its Matisse, Cezanne and Renoir, all carefully, aesthetically arranged with two African masks hanging in the midst of all those “naked white women”. Sterling finds other pieces of African art in storage and wants to display them, as well, but Paul Barrow, a white man and the Foundation’s educational director, protests that Sterling’s proposal would go against Alfred Morris’ will which specifies that the collection, as hung, cannot be altered in any way, shape or form --- it is a permanent collection. Sterling counters that Paul’s resistance to change is racially motivated; when Paul confides his thoughts to a journalist and finds himself branded a racist, things spiral out of control with, ironically, the Foundation itself suffering the most. The question is: who decides what is Art and what deserves to be displayed to the public?
Mr. Gibbons has loosely based PERMANENT COLLECTION on similar events at the Barnes Foundation, outside of Philadelphia, and he is careful to balance both sides of the argument: Morris’ will could be seen as outdated, being forged in segregated times, yet to go against its wishes would be illegal; Paul dwells happily in a cocoon of white art while Sterling has struggled to simply live in the sun; both men are quick to draw the lines, face to face, and back to back (Paul resents Sterling’s fine clothes and expensive car; Sterling compares Paul’s media-campaign to a Ku Klux Klan rally). The Sterling-Paul confrontations are thrilling yet I found BEE-LUTHER-HATCHEE more satisfying even though PERMANENT COLLECTION is the better-written play. BEE-LUTHER-HATCHEE’s racism is low-key and rueful --- the white author is not a monster; the black publisher makes her phone call in a less-than-objective moment. PERMANENT COLLECTION is colder in comparison with Paul dissolving into hysteria while Sterling hardens in his rage and determination. Recurring elements give PERMANENT COLLECTION a recycled feeling: both plays have a snoopy reporter to help stir up trouble, the dialogues are disguised debates, and both plays end in a draw as if Mr. Gibbons is fearful of taking sides; he may not realize it but PERMANENT COLLECTION’s scales are tipped in Paul’s favor simply because Paul comes off as human and flawed --- plus his is the name smeared in the press, not Sterling’s --- while we know little about Sterling beyond that he is an Angry Black Man (interestingly, he remains model-immaculate from beginning to end, never removing his jacket while Paul rumples in believable fashion); there is a breathtaking moment in Act Two when Sterling becomes a potential Richard III, trusting no one, but such continued malevolence would upset the scales; Mr. Gibbons chooses to report Sterling’s final actions from a cool distance, several years later (had this play been written thirty years ago, Sterling would have torched the Foundation in revenge and been gunned down, afterwards, similar to Coalhouse Walker taking over the Morgan library in RAGTIME).
Finally, Mr. Gibbons is vague on where he himself stands on racism: there is an unconscious racism which comes from social conditioning (“you’ve got to be taught to hate and fear…”); there is a natural racism which is an awareness of differences yet is not necessarily evil if those differences are respected; and, then, of course there is the overt kind where one race claims superiority over another; in the other corner, there is well-intentioned racism in the form of idealization --- in the play SPINNING INTO BUTTER, one character mentions that idealization of another race is but another form of condescension . Paul may well be an unconscious racist, preferring what he knows and likes over that in which he has little interest; Sterling’s branding him a racist forces Paul to behave like one whereas Paul himself would say he is acting in self-defense and for the good of the Foundation. And what of Sterling? Mr. Gibbons has created a character who interprets all slights against him as racist, justified or otherwise --- when Paul’s mouse begins to squeak, Sterling’s cat grins: for all his grievances, Sterling enjoys a good rhubarb with the Man, being defined solely in his dealings with white society (again, we learn little about Sterling’s personal life --- one forgets about the son Sterling mentions in his opening monologue where he is sardonically likeable). Alfred Morris wanders throughout the evening, as a ghost or in flashback, delivering his views about Art. In one moment he admits he was “addicted to the Negro”; what a world of meaning could have been revealed had Mr. Gibbons allowed Morris to pause and then add, “but I realize now that I was only addicted to Negro culture.” Mr. Gibbons counter-counterpoints Sterling and Paul with Kanika Weaver, Sterling’s clear-eyed assistant who gives a younger generation’s views on racism which make the two men seem a throwback to the Bad Old Days, and Ella, a senior staff member from those Days and to whom the Foundation comes first, regardless of what hangs on the walls.
Despite my nitpicks, PERMANENT COLLECTION remains important viewing and New Repertory has done it up proud. Director Adam Zahler keeps the scales balanced as much as possible though Ben Evett comes to dominate the evening as Paul, full of twitchy smiles at first but becoming a bookish white knight, reckless and naïve, yet never mannered, and Clark Jackson makes a handsome, gleaming Sterling, shaping his character’s anger into deft, verbal sparring --- a Madison Avenue Othello to Mr. Evett’s academic Iago. Giselle Jones, who made a lovely New Rep debut last year as a barefoot, backwoods teenager in NO NIGGERS, NO JEWS, NO DOGS, is immensely likeable as Kanika (notice how her hair is subtly different for her final scene, reflecting her mood); Paul D. Farwell and Tracy Olivero are properly gruff (Mr. Farwell) and smarmy (Ms. Olivero) as Morris and the ever-snooping journalist. Ella twice appears, briefly: her opening scene with Sterling is so much dusting; her closing scene is with Ben (here, Mr. Evett should have been more smug in his victory rather than going back to Square One, again) and Sylvia Ann Soares makes that moment a beautiful, understated one with her Ella in gentle disapproval over all the wreckage that these two men have caused; she closes the play in a voice of divine retribution. Several months ago Ms. Soares passionately declaimed in Richard McElvain’s ANTIGONE, her quiet yet authoritative Ella is a pleasing balance of her own artistry in this, an evening of scales.