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Permanent Collection by Thomas Gibbons is a polarizing play, a la Oleanna by David Mamet. Oleanna has as its preposterous premise the ridiculous notion that a veteran education professor, on the verge of tenure, would risk meeting alone in his office with a distraught failing female student — something that common sense would absolutely forbid in these days of Political Correctness on campus, and something that I certainly knew not to do 35 years ago as a lowly teaching assistant in the East Carolina University Department of English.
The premise of the current Deep Dish Theater Company production of Permanent Collection is far more plausible — and very timely in an area where a controversial Durham politician recently shortened her name to J-Dub to run on a hip-hop ticket. A wealthy businessman and art collector, Dr. Alfred Morris (played by David Ring), assembles a formidable collection of artwork — mostly Impressionist paintings, but also examples of African art and pieces from other eras and countries. To display the choicest pieces of collection, Dr. Morris creates the Morris Foundation, not downtown with the rest of the museums, but in a posh suburb of Philadelphia. Dr. Morris’ foundation includes a series of rooms — which he personally laid out — where all the pieces in the room complement each other and, taken together as a whole, make a statement about their owner views this portion of his collection.
Much to the consternation of the Euro-centric art establishment, the iconoclastic Dr. Morris denies access to his collection to many of its pillars, preferring to stimulate the imagination of students of fine art and other selected visitors. Not only does he include African art in his displays, but he regularly invites African-American gospel groups to perform at his foundation and, upon his death, he transfers control of the foundation and his art collection to a historically black college.
When the college appoints black corporate executive Sterling North (Byron Jennings II) as the new director of the foundation, he arrives with a colossal chip on his shoulder. Although not an art expert, North has an extensive knowledge of African art and is thrilled by some of the choice pieces that he finds in storage. He wants to change the existing displays to incorporate his new discoveries, but Dr. Morris’ will expressly forbids altering the arrangements in any way.
So, North plays the race card, claiming that the restrictions in the will are somehow discriminatory toward African-Americans in general and African art in particular. Indeed, North tars anyone who opposes him, such as foundation director of education Paul Barrow (John Paul Middlesworth), with accusations that their motives must be racist. To tell his side of the story, North grants an interview to reporter Gillian Crane (Katya Hill), knowing that the subsequent article will stoke the fires of racial resentment in the City of Brotherly Love. Predictably, a firestorm erupts — a very, very public firestorm.
North is a complicated character, and Byron Jennings does an excellent job of exploring those complications. Stopped for DWB (Driving While Black) while on his way to the foundation, immaculately dressed in his expensive Jaguar, North is righteously indignant. But he takes his indignation a little too far. He overreacts, and he tends to demonize the opposition.
In the DWB episode and subsequent confrontations with his co-workers — Barrow, former assistant to the director Ella Franklin (Rosa Williams), and her successor Kanika Weaver (Angela Ray), whom he brought with him from his previous job as vice president of community relations for a large corporation — North proves to be utterly ruthless. Whenever anyone objects to the changes that he wants at the foundation, North insists that their disagreements are not just legitimate differences of opinions on art issues. Anyone who opposes his suggestions is a racist!
In the Triangle, where many people tend to walk on eggshells rather than risk offending someone of another race, the questions that Permanent Collection raises are shocking. How can members of the white community confront a black charlatan without being forever tarred as racist? Why won’t some members of the African-American community ever repudiate one of their own (think O.J.) when the evidence of serious wrongdoing is overwhelming? How do you separate legitimate disagreements over issues, artistic and otherwise, from inflammatory rhetoric that characterizes any opposition as spiritual bedfellows of the Ku Klux Klan?
Deep Dish artistic director Paul Frellick is an expert at handling hot-button issues, and his provocative staging of Permanent Collection gives all the tough questions raised therein a complete and thorough airing. This is a play that may challenge some of its audience’s core beliefs, as well as send their blood pressures soaring; and Frellick makes sure that no one sits through it unscathed.
In addition to Byron Jennings’ charismatic characterization as Sterling North, this Deep Dish production includes a passionate performance by John Paul Middlesworth as Paul Barrow and David Ring’s pungent portrayal of Dr. Alfred Morris, who appears during the current controversy in a series of interwoven flashbacks. Middlesworth’s cool and cerebral Barrow is the perfect foil for Jennings’ fiery North in their classic confrontation in which Barrow tries to convince North that Dr. Morris was a political liberal and a pioneer collector of African art, and he had no ulterior motives in selecting which objects to display and which to store.
Katya Hill is also excellent as reporter Gillian Crane, a fixture on a Philadelphia paper’s special suburban section. Crane gives all of her interview subjects as much rope as they require. Can she help it if they use it to hang themselves?
Angela Ray has her moments as Kanika Weaver, North’s trusted assistant until she starts listening to the counter-arguments to his proposals; and Rosa Williams puts some passion in the cameo role of Ella Franklin, Dr. Morris’ long-time African-American assistant whom North peremptorily transfers so he can bring Miss Weaver with him to his new position.
Scenic designer Paul Stiller does a masterful job of suggesting various Morris Foundation offices and galleries in a skeletal set, where arrangements of picture frames and a few African art objects provide a backdrop to the action; lighting designer Scott Marlow artfully accents the drama in each scene; and costume designer Judy Chang outfits the cast in fashions that superbly reveal other aspects of their characters. Properties mistress Devra Thomas and sound designers Deborah Coclanis and Danny Tauber and voiceover artists Sherida McMullan, Mark Miller, and David zum Brunnen also help heighten the dramatic intensity of Deep Dish’s thought-provoking presentation of Permanent Collection.
Deep Dish Theater Company presents Permanent Collection Thursday-Saturday, Sept. 1-3, 8-10, and 15-17 at 8 p.m.; Sunday, Sept. 4 and 11, at 3 p.m.; and Wednesday, Sept. 14, at 7:30 p.m. in the space between the Print Shop and Hungates — and across from Waldenbooks — at the Dillard’s end of University Mall, at the intersection of Estes Drive and U.S. 15-501, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. $15 ($10 students and $13 seniors 60+), except “Cheap Dish Night,” Sept. 1st, when all tickets are $6. 919/968-1515. Note: Following the show’s 3 p.m. performance on Sept. 4th, there will be a post-play discussion led by Dr. Chuck Stone and including the actors and director. Deep Dish Theater Company: http://www.deepdishtheater.org/current.htm.
Deep Dish Theater Company will kick off its fifth season with the North Carolina premiere Permanent Collection, prize-winning white Philadelphia-based playwright Thomas Gibbons’ provocative play about racial politics and artistic integrity, Aug. 25-Sept. 17 in the company’s black-box theater located in the space between the Print Shop and Hungates at the Dillard’s end of University Mall in Chapel Hill, NC. Deep Dish artistic director Paul Frellick will stage this ripped-from-the-headlines drama.
Permanent Collection, which is mostly set in a public art gallery, premiered Oct. 24, 2003, at the InterAct Theatre in Philadelphia. In reviewing a subsequent production, F. Kathleen Foley of the Los Angeles Times claimed, “Gibbons’ intellectually charged drama is a beautifully balanced dialectic that treats a complicated and emotional issue without cheap conclusions .… Sophisticated and deft, it is a provocative treatment of the unanswerable.”
Steven Leigh Morris of the LA Weekly added, “The phrase ‘Put yourself in my place’ rings like an anthem in Thomas Gibbons’ eloquent and shrewdly observed drama about the subtleties of racism, labeling, and perception.”
In preshow publicity, Deep Dish Theater Company writes:
“Permanent Collection begins with the arrival of Sterling North (played by Byron Jennings II), at his new job as director of the Morris Foundation, an art gallery with a matchless collection of Impressionist paintings. Unexpectedly, he finds some African art in the gallery’s storage department; but when he proposes to display the pieces, he finds himself at odds with Paul Barrow (John Paul Middlesworth), a senior employee of the gallery and a defender of the vision of its founder (David Ring). When a reporter (Katja Hill) gets hold of the story, a firestorm of controversy is ignited that soon engulfs not only the employees of the gallery (Angela Ray and Rosa Williams), but the surrounding community as well.
“Playwright Gibbons is the author of a number of plays, including the acclaimed Bee-Luther-Hatchee. The design team for Permanent Collection includes Paul Stiller (sets), Judy Chang (costumes), Scott Marlow (lights), Deborah Coclanis and Danny Tauber (sound), and Devra Thomas (properties). Lormarev Jones is the stage manager.
“‘This play is a hotbed of ideas,’ says Frellick, ‘and the characters all make compelling cases for their individual perspectives. As in the case of the recent controversy that surrounded the renaming of Chapel Hill’s Airport Road [to Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.], unforeseen issues arise that touch on the most basic of social divides, and the audience may well find themselves caught in the middle.’”
Deep Dish Theater Company presents Permanent Collection Thursday-Saturday, Aug. 25-27 and Sept. 1-3, 8-10, and 15-17 at 8 p.m.; Sunday, Aug. 28 and Sept. 4 and 11, at 3 p.m.; and Wednesday, Sept. 14, at 7:30 p.m. in the space between the Print Shop and Hungates — and across from Waldenbooks — at the Dillard’s end of University Mall, at the intersection of Estes Drive and U.S. 15-501, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. $15 ($10 students and $13 seniors 60+), except “Cheap Dish Night,” Sept. 1st, when all tickets are $6. 919/968-1515. Note 1: On Aug. 28th, there will be a “Meet the Designers” discussion following the show’s 3 p.m. performance. Note 2: Following the show’s 3 p.m. performance on Sept. 4th, there will be a post-play discussion led by Dr. Chuck Stone and including the actors and director. Deep Dish Theater Company: http://www.deepdishtheater.org/current.htm.