Speak for Yourself

'Permanent Collection' mixes issues of art and race into a package that provokes, but does not change minds

What I wrote two years ago when Borderlands Theater presented a work by Thomas Gibbons holds true for the playwright's Permanent Collection, currently enjoying a top-notch production by Arizona Theatre Company: It will trigger arguments but not change the mind of anyone who already has an opinion about contemporary race issues in America. It's a healthy dose of provocation that should make us all squirm as we watch sincere characters attack and defend attitudes that seem justified, but perhaps beside the point.

Gibbons is a remarkably even-handed writer, surely one of the best contemporary playwrights addressing race issues today. The fact that he tends to write about issues first and characters second is a negligible liability, because the figures at the center of his stories are very well drawn--so complicated that they are sympathetic even when they're wrong-headed.

Permanent Collection takes place at the Morris Foundation, an eccentric art museum based none-too-subtly on the Barnes Foundation, a superb repository of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art and other objects in a posh suburb outside Philadelphia. ATC scenic designer Robin Sanford Roberts has erected an exact replica of a Barnes gallery, right down to the curious but somehow orderly jumble of ornately framed canvases separated here and there by African art objects, all uncluttered by wall texts.

Like the organization that inspired it, the fictitious Morris Foundation is hobbled by restrictions in the will of its cantankerous and idiosyncratic founder. Alfred Morris, a wealthy businessman, acquired a huge and magnificent collection of art produced in the early decades of the 20th century and folk artifacts that influenced it, and housed it all--just so--in a museum open to all art lovers, but on a severely restricted schedule. Morris, like Barnes, insisted that the precise arrangement of works on display could never be altered, and bequeathed control of the foundation to an obscure black college, partly because he loved African art, and partly because he loved to rankle the fine-arts establishment.

In Permanent Collection, management of the Morris Foundation falls to Sterling North, a college trustee who has risen as high as he can in the corporate world and is eager to take charge of the art collection; although he has no training as an arts administrator, he is a connoisseur of African art.

"Put yourself in my place," North says at the play's beginning in his one address directly to the audience. He recounts how, on his way to his first day of work at the foundation, a cop pulls him over for the crime of "DWB"--being a black man with the nerve to drive around in a Jaguar. North offers a surprisingly good-natured account of this humiliation, something he has come to expect as an African-American male. You engage with this character immediately, which is important, because North soon indulges in some thoughtless and high-handed acts that would make him seem quite disagreeable if we hadn't already had a glimpse of the world through his eyes.

"Put yourself in my place," says Paul Barrow, the foundation's education director, in his address to the audience at the beginning of Act 2. Defending the legal requirements of Morris' will, Barrow has opposed North's proposal to bring eight exquisite African pieces out of storage and integrate them into the displays. "It's more than a collection of objects; it's a vision," Barrow insists, reminding North that the will prohibits removing, moving or adding anything. North suggests to a reporter that Barrow is motivated by racism. "The issue is not race," Barrow later insists, after the situation has degenerated into lawsuits, protests and unflattering media coverage. "The issue is art."

Through their increasingly bitter exchanges, each character seems to have sincere intentions, although each is also prone to self-serving pronouncements. The mediating voice of reason is Kanika Weaver, North's assistant and Barrow's friend, a young African-American woman bemused by North's resentment and Barrow's obtuseness, but loyal in her way to each man. Meanwhile, the cantankerous ghost of Morris himself wanders the galleries, making resonant, imperious pronouncements that suggest he and North are truly kindred spirits.

North's charge that benevolent Anglos have appointed themselves the caretakers and tastemakers of a culture they have no right to dominate was echoed last week in Britain, when African music promoter Biyi Adepegba denounced the clique of agents, record execs and journalists who admit only a narrow range of artists into the Western "world music" category, bypassing the artists that Africans themselves listen to most and promoting music that many Africans ignore. However well meaning they are, the Anglos who open the gates to representatives of other cultures are asking for trouble if they dare to linger at the portal.

Under the direction of Samantha K. Wyer--ATC's talented associate artistic director, who usually snags the shows of deepest substance--Robert Jason Jackson is an outstanding Sterling North: dignified, intelligent, poised, cunning, cultivated yet barely able to contain his lifetime of frustrations as a black man in America. Bob Sorenson, who usually takes comic parts here in Tucson, is every bit Jackson's equal in the dramatic role of Paul Barrow, a victim of our culture's readiness to take offense, a good person who yet is ultimately capable of some brutal honesty whose articulation is not in his best interest.

Rayme Cornell is a centered, no-nonsense Kanika, a strong presence in a role that could be obscured by the two main male characters. Speaking of strong presence, Lee Moore is crusty and commanding as the devious Morris. Fine work also comes from Patti Davis Suarez as the reporter of mixed motivations who catalyzes the action, and Lizan Mitchell as a long-time administrative assistant who is the first victim of North's administration.

The spirit of Alfred Morris has the last word, and it's something to take to heart: Let the art speak for itself. In Permanent Collection, and more often than not in life, trouble ensues when we presume to speak for anything but ourselves.

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