Questions about art, race, ethics and language spark passionate arguments in the provocative new play Permanent Collection, currently the main-stage offering at Kitchen Dog Theater's sixth annual New Works Festival. In an elegantly designed and smartly acted production directed by Dan Day, the Thomas Gibbons drama challenges its characters (and its audience) to re-examine "what we see and how we see" art and beauty, particularly which cultures' works of art deserve "masterpiece" status. The play also puts a new spin on old issues regarding being black in America, starting with a monologue by the central character, Sterling North (played by Clarence Gilyard), explaining what goes through his mind every time he's pulled over in his Jaguar for "driving while black."
"You pull over and watch the cop get out of his car," says Sterling, a corporate exec chosen to be the new director of an exclusive East Coast art foundation. "A corner of your mind automatically runs down the checklist, the one your father drummed into you and that you've drummed into your own son. Keep your hands in sight. Don't make any unexpected movements. Address him as 'Officer.'
"'Is there a problem, Officer?' you say. Of course, you know what the problem is--DWB--but there's a script to be followed in these encounters, and you are following it."
The terse, often explosive dialogue that follows isn't quite as predictable as Sterling's well-honed response to the bogus police stop. Permanent Collection is one of the freshest new plays to come along in years, on par with two other modern dramas that employ art as a central theme: John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation and Donald Margulies' Sight Unseen. Gibbons, a white playwright whose work often deals with race and conflict in American culture, succeeds where too many other emerging playwrights come up short. He takes on important issues in this play (his eighth) without ever reducing the conversations to polemical jibes between angry voices. Permanent Collection works as a worthwhile and memorable evening of theater because while it's discussing the racial divide that exists even among artsy liberals, it delivers a well-crafted plot (including a dandy cliffhanger at the end of Act 1) and six clearly defined original characters saying interesting things. Best of all is the dialogue that takes place after the curtain calls. This is a play worth thinking and talking about long after the performance ends.
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The setting is the fictional "Morris Foundation," home to a priceless collection of Impressionist art (based on Philadelphia's embattled art gem, the Barnes Foundation). Following the death of its founder (played as a dapper ghost by Barry Nash), the foundation appoints Sterling, a businessman with no background in the art world, as its new chief administrator. Arriving on the job with bounding enthusiasm, Sterling immediately upsets the status quo by bringing in his own young assistant, Kanika (Jaquai Wade), and relegating the loyal veteran (Tippi Hunter) to a post in the "archives."
When the collection's white education director, Paul (Christopher Carlos), takes Sterling on a get-acquainted tour of the building, the new boss is surprised and excited to find a cache of centuries-old African treasures stored away from public view. Why not bring out a few pieces of the fine tribal art and mix them among the Modiglianis and Renoirs, Sterling wonders.
What seems to be a simple request turns into a vicious battle that almost destroys the foundation. Paul maintains that the collection's contents aren't to be tampered with, according to the dying wishes of the founder. What's on view is what's supposed to be on view; what isn't, isn't. Sterling senses racism in the setup. "There is the reason given," he says. "And then there is the reason."
Why, he asks, are the walls of a renowned institution crowded with paintings of white women by white artists when the African art is ghetto-ized to the basement? Through a local newspaper reporter (Leah Spillman) looking for a scoop, the debate is made public. Paul is fired. He sues. White protesters show up to support him. Annoyed, Sterling looks out at the chanting marchers from his office window and compares them to the Ku Klux Klan.
The race card shuffles this way and that throughout the play. But playwright Gibbons doesn't take sides. He lets his characters do the grandstanding, and both Sterling and Paul make reasoned arguments for their points of view. They also have their own hidden agendas. Perhaps Paul is bitter about being passed over for the job in favor of an outsider, a black man more financially successful than he'll ever be. And isn't there just a hint of screw-you revenge against white upper-crust culture in Sterling's demand to open the foundation to more urban black visitors?
In content and production quality, Kitchen Dog excels with this one. A big surprise is the performance by Gilyard, a theater newcomer best known as the shrugging sidekick on two long-running TV series, Matlock and Walker, Texas Ranger. He's also appeared in those dreadful movie versions of the dreadful Left Behind books. Now a graduate student and instructor of acting at SMU, Gilyard, 48, acquits himself admirably in his local stage debut, projecting a strong sense of barely restrained rage from behind Sterling's smooth demeanor.
Christopher Carlos, as Paul, and Jaquai Wade, as Kanika, ignite promising sparks of chemistry between their characters that are never fully explored by the play. Both are good at giving their characters real depth. Leah Spillman plays her reporter, Ella, as a brittle little manipulator, but she serves mostly as a catalyst for the others' actions.
As the dead Mr. Morris, Barry Nash comes on in a flash of white light with a perceptibly playful twinkle in his eyes. From his solo speeches, insights into just why old man Morris hid all those African artifacts away in the basement are hinted at, if not fully revealed. His turns onstage are serenaded by an unseen choir of gospel-singing children.
Scenic designer Jake Maudlin wisely has kept the set simple, just an enormous circle of blond planks glowing with organic warmth under the stage lights. The dialogue may have been the inspiration for the stark design in which the characters see paintings that aren't there. Looking at great art, muses Paul, makes us feel refreshed, changes us a little. Through art, he says, we "see the world in the round."
Permanent Collection runs throughout Kitchen Dog's New Works series, but the schedule also features some intriguing-sounding one-night-only readings of new plays.
At 7:30 p.m. June 13 is the staged reading of Japanese Death Poem, a comedy about the midlife crisis of a poetry professor. Playwright D.T. Arcieri will be present at the reading, which is being directed by Stephen Tobolowsky, an SMU alum who is one of the busiest and most recognizable character actors in films. (Groundhog Day, Memento and Adaptation are just a few of his credits.) He'll be at the performance, too.
At 7:30 p.m. June 20, KDT artistic associate Jonathan Taylor directs a staged reading of Wayne Peter Liebman's Transference, a drama exploring the work of Jung, Freud and their mutual disciple, Sabina Spielrein.
Toni Press-Coffman's new sex comedy for the over-40 set, That Slut!, will be performed as a staged reading at 8 p.m. June 23, directed by Dallas playwright Vicki Cheatwood.
The final reading in the series is Wait! by Julie Jensen at 7:30 p.m. June 27.
All performances are at The McKinney Avenue Contemporary, home of Kitchen Dog Theater, 3120 McKinney Ave. Call 214-953-1055 for ticket info or reservations.
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