In “Permanent Collection,” playwright Thomas Gibbons puts his finger on a key element of race relations in America: Even smart, reasonable people can’t seem to have a productive conversation about it. Instead, as soon as the “race card” is played, people retreat behind denials and threats — and sometimes even lawyers — to the detriment of all. Based on the travails of the Barnes Foundation outside of Philadelphia, Gibbons’ insightful if slightly manufactured dissection of ego, art and race provides welcome layers to a traditional debate play, and this robust production, previously staged at a more intimate Hollywood space and now playing at the Kirk Douglas Theater, brings the tension to a believable boil.
Sterling North (Ben Guillory), a successful African-American businessman, has just been appointed to head the famed Morris Foundation art gallery, the creation of the late eccentric collector, Alfred Morris (played with relish by Kent Minault, in a series of interspersed monologues). A forward-thinking renegade in his own day, placing African sculptures next to paintings by some of the best-known Western artists like Cezanne and Picasso, Morris was also someone who despised the art establishment and enjoyed exerting control of his collection. In his will he left the foundation to a black university but insisted that nothing in the galleries be changed.
When Sterling sees the extraordinary African pieces in basement storage, he suggests that just a few of them be placed where they can be seen, a suggestion for change that immediately puts him at odds with the long-time, white education director Paul Barrow (Doug Cox).
Paul sees himself as the great defender of Morris’ vision and loves the fact that nothing in the gallery has even been shifted since the early ’50s. Sterling sees such stagnancy as silly, since Morris couldn’t possibly have appreciated the full value of the African objects at a time when they hadn’t even been studied yet.
It doesn’t take long for race to come to the forefront. Sterling believes he can challenge Morris’ will by claiming it’s discriminatory. The tensions are stoked when Paul leaks Sterling’s plans to a snooping reporter (Kiersten Morgan), who of course has an interest in conflict and controversy.
While the debate itself has plenty of interest, Gibbons succeeds here because of his ability to drive the play not so much through argument as character. Paul may have a point and be racist (he ultimately suggests that the African work belongs in an African-American museum). Sterling may have a point and be overly contemptuous of those who disagree (comparing, for example, the protesters outside the gallery to the KKK). These are two men quick to judge and quick to anger, and over time, Gibbons takes us deeper into their flaws without wholly diminishing their perspectives.
It is clear, though, that Gibbons has greater sympathy for Sterling’s position, and from the start, we are able to see his perspective with clarity. The play opens with a long monologue in which Sterling tells of being pulled over by a white cop just for driving his Jaguar, and despite knowing the restrained script he’s supposed to follow, Sterling just isn’t willing to be quite so compliant any more. Guillory, who has an exceptionally powerful stage presence, very effectively conveys how Sterling’s classy elegance is directly related to his righteous indignation.
As Paul, Cox is strong but not as potent, and not quite as invested in his character’s point of view. That sometimes tilts the play further in one direction than it feels like it should.
In this area and some others, the production, directed by Dwain Perry, doesn’t strip the play of its contrivances but it does engage the provocative issues with passion, and evokes a genuine sense of sadness at how these conflicts leave a path of destruction.