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Permanent Collection

Arizona Theatre Company presents "Permanent Collection" by Samantha Wyer, and by Thomas Gibbons. 
Southwest premiere Tucson: February 26 - March 19, 2005 Phoenix: March 24 - April 10, 2005 


Review: Art offers new perspective on racism

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Tim Fuller
Bob Sorenson (left, as Barrow) and Robert Jason Jackson (as North) in ATC's provocative "Permanent Collection"
Regardless of how you feel about racism right now, you will change how you feel after watching Arizona Theatre Company's most excellent "Permanent Collection" by Thomas Gibbons. Most rational people are against racism, of course, but life is never that simple.

For proof, the play's director Samantha Wyer has brought together one of the finest productions in ATC's long history. She has taken a complex work and delivered it cleanly, crisply and with a forthright directness that will force astute audience members to realize anti-racism is about lots more than white people being nice to black people.

For one thing, there will always be racism in the United States just as there will always be poverty in the United States. Those people who believe in the importance of a caring society can work only to limit the impact of both poverty and racism.

Gibbons as playwright considers the rigidity of political correctness to be just as dangerous as any knee-jerk response to the word "racist." If white people and black people, brown, red and yellow people can't even talk among themselves in the plain words that political correctness considers unspeakable, how will America's once-famous melting pot ever start working again?

On the ATC stage Robert Jason Jackson is brilliant portraying Sterling North, an arrogant African- American wearing expensive British shoes to cover his clay feet of insecurity. His character is reminiscent of Othello, another black man successful in the white man's world.

Bob Sorenson is equally strong as Paul Barrow, the white man with legal precedent on his side. As we know from watching "The Fiddler on the Roof," tradition can be a powerful force - but it does have limits.

Basically, the play is about a bitter battle of words and wills between North, who wants to use his executive power as museum director to make African culture more prominent in a museum famous for its European painters, and Barrow, who insists the museum's exhibits must not be changed just to suit North's agenda.

As Wyer said in an earlier interview, "Both men make some good points, and both make some terrible mistakes."

Gibbons implies our nation's hope for the future as both a multicultural and pluralistic country lies in the practicality of its youth. Today's generation doesn't contain any black people who marched with Martin Luther King or white people with Ku Klux Klan robes stashed in the closet.

Today's generation is represented by the character of Kanika Weaver (Rayme Cornell), a light-skinned young woman who looks European but identifies with her African heritage. She works for North and becomes friends with Barrow. As the two men get their backs up in a battle over the proper display of modern paintings and sculpture owned by an eccentric collector, Weaver feels caught in the middle.

But time can only move forward. Time can neither correct nor forgive mistakes made in the past. The future is where we're all going to be. Dwelling on the past doesn't help anyone.

racism Permanent collectionYet, we are also prisoners of our past. The need for closure is a popular concept these days. Can closure ever become a code word for revenge?

Weaver doesn't get any of her questions resolved. As North and Barrow become more extreme in their reaction to each other, Weaver wants less to do with both of them.

"Permanent Collection" is based on the real-life dilemma of the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. The Foundation supports a valuable collection of European and African art willed to a small college of predominantly African-American students.

That college also struggled with the desire to put more African culture in the spotlight of attention attracted by the foundation's wealth of European paintings. Art is imitating life in this instance, but art is also providing some lessons reality should heed.

Which is more worthy of a place in a prestigious museum: A Cezanne, or a ceremonial figure from a royal African court? When a freethinking art collector dies and leaves his priceless collection of Impressionist masterpieces to a predominantly black college, the new director and a member of the old guard go head to head in an electrifying battle over race, art and personal power. This provocative and fearless drama, loosely based on real events at the Barnes Collection in Philadelphia, tells a riveting story about people wrestling with the often unspoken questions that reside deep in the American conscience.

"A fierce and fascinating new play." – Miami Herald


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