Risking the conversation
Issues of race and culture collide in a revival of Tom Gibbons’ “Permanent Collection.”
By Naila Francis
When “Permanent Collection” made its world premiere at InterAct Theatre Company in the fall of 2003, Barack Obama was campaigning for a seat in the U.S. Senate and the Barnes Foundation was still mired in controversy, its relocation from suburban Merion to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia only an idea on a petition churning through the courts.
Almost a decade later, with the Barnes a prominent anchor along the city’s cultural corridor, and Obama in his second term as president, the play, inspired by events surrounding the museum, is being revived.
But while references to such changes have been inserted, Tom Gibbons’ provocative look at race in America remains as pointed as ever.
“The play’s central arguments not only hold up in the world, but they’re just as riveting to watch,” says Seth Rozin, producing artistic director at InterAct, who is again helming the production, which is in previews and opens Wednesday. ” ‘Permanent Collection‘ really examines the idea of visibility, the amount of space, both literal and metaphorical, that is given to a minority by the dominant culture.”
Those issues of race and cultural ownership collide in the Barrymore Award-winning work when an African-American who is appointed executive director of a suburban museum clashes with its white education director over a proposal to add a new display of African art.
The play is the second in Gibbons’ trilogy that examines race through the lens of literature (“Bee-luther-hatchee”), art and history (“A House With No Walls”).
“He is totally willing to tackle things that are often considered controversial or forbidden, especially forbidden by a person who’s not, in this case, African-American,” says Rozin, who has collaborated with the InterAct playwright-in-residence on eight world premieres. “He writes plays that are asking hard questions about difficult issues and ideas we face in the world and he humanizes them. … He’s really interested in people on the basis of what they believe as opposed to what their emotional and psychological makeup is, and what happens when they come into conflict with those beliefs with others who disagree. That’s a big part of what we do here.”
With prior works including “6221,” about the 1985 MOVE bombing in West Philadelphia, and “Silverhill,” based on the 19th century Oneida community in upstate New York, Gibbons admits to being a “news junkie” and a voracious reader often inspired by real-life events.
“But I’m trying to see beyond the events … to what it is that’s really going on underneath and what do they say about where we are now and where we’re going,” he says.
The 1995 lawsuit in which neighbors of the Barnes sued then-president Richard Glanton for slander after he accused them of racism when they opposed plans to build a parking lot at the Merion site was one such event.
“This is something I’ve noticed for many years, that whenever race comes into any kind of a controversy, it immediately submerges whatever the controversy was and it becomes about race,” says Gibbons. “I thought the Barnes Foundation was the perfect example of that.”
Race may never be far from the surface of American life, but Frank X, who is returning to InterAct in the role of Sterling North, the museum’s new executive director, believes discussions of it are frequently skirted or relegated to historical terms. That’s why he appreciates Gibbons’ “fearless” writing.
“I think that’s what art is for, to give us entree into such discussions,” he says. “People want to think, and I do, too, that we’re beyond it, but we’re not — not yet.”
Gibbons chose an unusual angle to open the conversation.
“One of the things that interested me is that a museum, to me, represents kind of a cultural consensus. It’s the accepted view of what we as a culture think is valuable, valuable enough to hang on a wall. The question people don’t ask very often is, who decides what hangs on the wall?” he says. “What criteria are they using and what are their backgrounds? I think that’s a really interesting question and it’s one of the questions that the play raises but it raises it in the context of race.”
That audience members can’t confidently side with either North or his purist counterpoint, Paul Barrow (Tim Moyer, also returning from the original production), speaks to Gibbons’ conscious attempt to write from both perspectives.
“I’d rather the character be a complex character and turn people off than to not be shown in all of his complexity,” says Frank X. “I like (Sterling). He’s both admirable and wrong-headed in equal measures. I think that’s what’s delicious about all of the characters here. We are human.”
The voice of a younger generation is represented, too, courtesy of Sterling’s assistant, Kanika Weaver (Lynette Freeman).
“I feel personally optimistic that younger people don’t have the same racial hang-ups that people of my generation do. They’ve grown up in a different time. They’ve grown up with different expectations. It’s just not a big deal to them to have friends of different races,” says Gibbons. “(Kanika is) the one who embodies the hope that things may be different, and better, in the future.”
– The Bucks County Courier Times and The Intelligencer