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Using art to sculpt a play about racism

The Baltimore Sun

Dignity Players continues its tradition of tackling difficult issues with a drama that examines contemporary racism and the meaning of art and questions the final dictates of an eccentric art collector.

Thomas Gibbons' Permanent Collection, which opens Aug. 3 at an Annapolis church, is loosely based on the controversy at the Barnes Foundation located near Philadelphia, where Albert Barnes grouped his art collection according to his preferences placing a painting beside an African sculpture that inspired the artist.

Barnes created his foundation as a school, not a museum and stipulated that his renowned Impressionist collection - 800 paintings with an estimated worth of more than $2 billion - was to remain with no changes made in his former residence-gallery. Barnes died in 1951, bequeathing controlling interest of the Foundation to Lincoln University, a small African-American institution.

Barnes' will has been challenged, however, and recently plans were made to move the collection to a new permanent museum to be designed by an architect to be chosen next month. Others who support Barnes' original concept continue to object.

Dignity Players founder Mickey Handwerger, who serves as producer for this production, said the group is partnering with the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Fund Committee, which is slated to receive a portion of net revenues, "to have their help in reaching out to increase African American attendance at the play."

Dignity Players is a segment of the Arts in the Woods program of the Unitarian Universalist Church in Annapolis. The church's Anti-Racism Transformation Team will spearhead an optional audience discussion following the Aug. 4 and Aug. 11 matinee performances.

"This play is about ways of seeing and the infinite variations on personal vision, whether race, art, justice, whatever," director Terry Averill said. "Directing any meaningful play allows me and the actors to grow personally and professionally. The time spent developing each other's sensibilities has been rewarding."

Gibbons' story centers on African-American businessman Sterling North, who has been appointed the new curator of the Morris Foundation. Before his first day on the job, North encounters prejudice when his Jaguar catches a police officer's eye. North soon discovers that the art collection includes major African sculptures that remain in storage.

He proposes displaying them with other exhibited works, but is met by opposition from the foundation's education director, Paul Barrow, who believes that the staff should continue to honor the wishes of the late Dr. Morris. After journalist Gillian Crane reports the story, questions are raised about racism, individual artistic vision and criteria for exhibiting art works.

Dignity Players has cast Chris Haley, the nephew of author Alex Haley , in the role of Sterling North. Bill Deck will play education director Paul Barrow. Sue Struve is journalist Gillian Crane. Kelly Armstrong will play North's assistant Kanika Weaver, and Jane Burns will play Ella Franklin, the foundation's executive assistant. Chris Poverman is cast as the ghost of Alfred Morris.

In this production a tradition started by Barnes of having a choir sing at the museum will be revived with a choir of eight directed by Jim Ballard.

Permanent Collection will run Aug. 3, 9, 10, 11 at 8 p.m., Aug. 4 and 12 at 2 p.m. and Aug. 5 at 7:30 p.m. at the Unitarian Universalist Church, 333 Dubois Road. Tickets cost $20 for Friday and Saturday evenings and $15 for Thursday and Sunday evenings. Saturday and Sunday matinees cost $10. Seniors and students receive a $5 discount. 410-266-8044 ext. 127 or

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