Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Alfred Morris (the play's equivalent of Barnes) has died and his will has shockingly left his entire foundation, which includes hundreds of paintings and objects including works from the most famous of the impressionist painters, to an African-American university. Sterling North, a businessman who was formerly vice president of a communications company with no professional arts administration experience, is hired by the university as the new director. When the black North discovers that there are important pieces of African art in the foundation's storage rooms, he announces that he wants to add them to the collection on display, which mostly comprises works by white European artists. But his decision results in butting heads with the white Paul Barrow, the foundation's education director who has basically devoted his whole life to the collection, and Morris' will which states no changes can be made to the Foundation's permanent collection. Morris is referred to numerous times as a man who was ahead of the times with his belief that African art is as important as the rest of the pieces in his collection. But that was fifty years ago and times have clearly changed. Why, if he was so pro-African art, did he keep most of those pieces in storage?
Gibbons' script is rich with detail, full of fiery dialogue, and ripe with realistic situations that show there are, as one of his characters states, "two sides to the race card." North, Barrow and Morris are all written as sympathetic, believable characters, and the issues brought up are legitimate and articulately stated. Gibbons also presents insightful questions concerning the role of black individuals finding their place in white corporate America. The plot plays out with plenty of twists and a lot of nuance that will make you constantly question if, in fact, any of the characters are actually "right" in their views as accusations of racism, lawsuits, and heated confrontations fill the air.
Director Charles St. Clair has assembled a talented cast led by T.A. Burrows and Bill Chameides who are superb as North and Barrow, respectively. Burrows has a monologue that begins the show and explicitly details North's encounter with a policeman who pulled his Jaguar over on his first day of work for what he calls D.W.B. (driving while black). Burrows' passionate delivery of this ordeal, and his assured take on North, firmly puts us on his side. Yet Chameides' soft spoken portrayal of Barrow and the sheer love he evokes in Barrow's devotion for the foundation and the artwork also make us believe his views and beliefs are valid. How can we side with both of these men and their divergent beliefs? In lesser hands these characters could come across as less realistic and more caricature.
Mitch Etter is wonderful as the rich, eccentric Morris, with a straightforward, folksy and personable delivery of the dialogue, effectively portraying this complicated yet exceptionally friendly man. As the two women caught between North and Barrow, Carrie Ellen Jones and Ryan L. Jenkins are both smart and savvy in their portrayals of, respectively, the reporter who prods and provokes the two leads and fans the flames of racism and North's dutiful young assistant who feels that she is being played by both sides. Jones' assured, straightforward take on her character is fitting for an ambitious reporter, while Jenkins' expressive gestures and luminous stage presence work well for this inquisitive woman. In a smaller role that bookends the play, De Angelus Crosby shows how reality and common sense sometimes make change inevitable.
Chris W. Haines' clean set design poses five large blank walls which are transformed by Hussein Mohamed's lighting and Elle Broeder's media design into a swirling whirlwind of art. The costumes by Rosemary Close perfectly evoke the characteristics of the individuals.
Just as any great piece of art can make you see things differently, Thomas Gibbons' Permanent Collection may make you question your beliefs as it challenges your perceptions on race, ambition, control and revenge.
Permanent Collection at iTheatre Collaborative played a weekend long engagement at ASU West from February 9th to 12th and moves downtown to the Herberger Theater Center with performances running through March 4th, 2017. Information for this show and upcoming productions can also be found at www.itheatreaz.org.
Written by Thomas Gibbons
Cast: (in order of appearance)