'Collection' sheds light on art, racism

The Baltimore Sun

Dignity Players' offering of Thomas Gibbons' Permanent Collection fulfills its mission to shed light on current social issues while challenging and entertaining us.

Permanent Collection encourages audiences to examine the meaning and value of art and the criteria for exhibiting it, asking whether the collector should restrict what is to be viewed and by whom.

Should an art exhibition remain unchanged for 50 years? What motivated the eccentric collector/ museum founder to will his collection to a small black university? Why was his collection of African sculpture consigned to storage? Does hiding art reduce its significance and lower its value?

Most important, we are asked to view the world through another's eyes, with the suggestion that most white people older than age 50 are racist without realizing it, and that some black people find evidence of racism in whites' thoughtlessness and insensitivity.

Gibbons' play begins with a monologue delivered by African-American businessman Sterling North as he starts his first day heading the Morris Foundation. He recounts that he has just been stopped in his Jaguar by a white police officer "for the crime of DWB - driving while black."

"Put yourself in my place," his soliloquy begins.

Supremely confident and image-perfect, North is pleased to be the director of the Morris Foundation, renowned for its collection of impressionist art, and soon reassigns the foundation's longtime executive assistant, Ella Franklin, so that he can bring in his young assistant from a previous job, Kanika Weaver.

He also faces the challenge of working with Paul Barrow, a disciple of Alfred Morris and the foundation's educational director, who headed the institution during the director search and was passed over.

North discovers the stored African art treasures and proposes displaying some of them, but meets with resistance from Barrow, who shares his opposition with journalist Gillian Crane. Controversy follows, with North labeling Barrow "a racist" in a subsequent interview with Crane.

North's refusal to apologize to Barrow motivates him to sue for libel. And his talks with Crane ultimately cost Weaver her job.

The racially sensitive aspects of Permanent Collection have inspired Dignity Players to partner with the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Fund Committee to help publicize this play in the African-American community, with the fund receiving a portion of the play's net proceeds.

In addition, members of Unitarian Universalist Church's Anti-Racism Transformation Team will conduct an optional audience discussion after the 8 p.m. performance tomorrow.

Dignity's production gains authenticity by using an art choir under the direction of Jim Ballard to deliver inspired singing.

Expanding the role of the art choir was only one of the innovative ideas of director Terry Averill that enliven a production that might have otherwise become static and weighed down by lengthy intellectual discussion.

The space is well-used, with actors arriving and departing from several locations. Averill keeps the action fast-paced and creates lively exchanges.

The minimalist set of a gallery works, although at Saturday's matinee, the natural daylight washed out the projected background images.

A distinctive presence is the ghost of Morris, played by Chris Poverman.

When still, he projects a powerful aura. At other times, his Morris exudes a joyous eccentricity. Poverman's Morris also is the shrewd collector who enjoys the joke of responding to a journalist's questions in excellent French.

Elegant Chris Haley delivers a polished performance as North, at first seeming coiled to strike at any possible slight and gradually revealing his character's rigidity, insecurities and inner turmoil.

Bill Deck is believable as Barrow, a somewhat likable, sometimes pedantic character. Deck conveys Barrow's increasing hostility toward North and his own insecurity at having the only job he has ever held threatened. Barrow's anger is believable, as is his warmth toward Weaver and his wariness of Crane.

The character of journalist Crane is not as well-drawn, although Sue Struve gives a fine portrayal. Dispassionate journalists are difficult characters to create and to relate to on a warm, human level.

Kelly Armstrong invests Weaver with the openness, honesty and a welcome humor required to be convincing while connoting a hopeful future in her generation being unburdened by racism. She accepts Barrow and North for who they are, regretting their inability to listen to each other. Unlike Sterling, Weaver is able to maintain friendships with people of different races.

Although Jane Burns has the requisite dignified bearing to play foundation employee and pivotal character Franklin, she had not mastered her lines last weekend. Burns improved in the second act and, it is hoped, will become more convincing in her early scenes this weekend.

"Permanent Collection" continues at 8 p.m. today and tomorrow and at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Annapolis, 333 Bestgate Road. Tickets are $20 for evening shows and $10 for matinees, with $5 discounts for seniors and students at all performances. Information: 410-266-8044, Ext. 127 or visit www.dignityplayers.com.

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