The Human Race Theatre Company, a continual advocate of potent works spotlighting the African-American experience, returns to the hot button topic of race with an outstanding presentation of Thomas Gibbons’ museum drama “Permanent Collection,” which appropriately opened at the Loft Theatre the day after probable presidential hopeful Donald Trump reassured the country of his great relationship with “the blacks.”
Delicately yet crisply directed by Schele Williams, responsible for the Human Race’s marvelous 2009 production of “Ethel Waters: His Eye Is On The Sparrow,” “Permanent Collection” examines a controversial 2003 feud, loosely based on a true account and ensuing documentary, between two hardnosed men that forever changes Pennsylvania’s Morris Foundation. Exclusively tucked away in the suburbs of Philadelphia with a by-appointment-only admission policy, the Foundation, beautifully conceptualized by scenic designer Tamara L. Honesty, is caught in a period of major transition following the untimely death of its creator/benefactor Alfred Morris (Scott Stoney, playfully shrewd and spry). Alfred peculiarly willed his vast art collection, primarily known for its Impressionist and Post-Impressionist treasures to be displayed without interference, to a historically black college who chose former corporate executive Sterling North (a tremendous Alan Bomar Jones) as the Foundation’s new director. Sterling, a Jaguar-driving African-American who has endured his share of prejudice, doesn’t ruffle feathers until he contemplates diversifying the museum’s 23 galleries by displaying eight pieces of African art found in storage. This bold idea deeply troubles the Foundation’s veteran curator Paul Barrow (Scott McGowan, a terrific adversary) who feels any disruption to the collection completely violates Alfred’s intent. As Sterling and Paul debate the preservation of legacy versus advancing the Foundation’s future, Gibbons credibly creates a volatile den of racially charged hostility that manages to sustain its neutrality, leaving the engrossing guessing game of right or wrong in the eye of the beholder.
When tempers rise and the race card is dealt, Gibbons predictably takes Sterling’s angry black male mentality too far, but Jones, magnetically commanding the stage with every move and gesture, rises above the tired stereotype with an impeccably crafted portrayal dynamically conveying Sterling’s dignity, intelligence, tenacity, wit and forward-thinking perspective. There is so much more to Sterling than mere rage and resentment, and I shudder to think what would have transpired in the hands of a lesser talent. McGowan, commendably holding his own in the face of the intimidating Jones, conveys Paul’s proficiency as an art aficionado with full veracity. He also excellently adopts a fiery persona in Act 2 when Paul, having sued Sterling for libel when called a racist in the local newspaper, leads various demonstrations against the Foundation after prodding from highly perceptive reporter Gillian Crane (Christine Brunner at her finest).
Additionally, the lovely Melissa Joyner radiates with cool sophistication as Kanika Weaver, Sterling’s associate who remains a loyal friend to Paul despite the heat of battle. Joyner is truly compelling late in Act 2 when Kanika, created by Gibbons as a means to explore common ground between the races, weighs her fate and shares an eye-opening epiphany. The likable Sharon Hope portrays Ella Franklin, Alfred’s longtime assistant.
Whether the core issue is race or art, “Permanent Collection,” incredibly relevant while fascinating with mystery, brings thought-provoking awareness to the pitfalls and repercussions of narrow-mindedness. Dissension is an inescapable fact of life, but perhaps after reflecting on the gorgeous universality of such masters as Cezanne, Matisse, Renoir, Seurat and Van Gogh in Gibbons’ captivating context, everyone can agree with Paul’s assessment that “art can make us better human beings – deeper, richer, more alive.”
Permanent Collection, which opened Friday, April 15, continues through Sunday, May 1 at the Loft Theatre, 126 N. Main St. Performances are Wednesday-Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Act One: 65 minutes; Act Two: 50 minutes. Tickets are $20.50-$40. A talkback discussion will be held following the Sunday, April 24 performance featuring Will South, chief curator of the Dayton Art Institute. For tickets or more information, call Ticket Center Stage at (937) 228-3630 or visit www.humanracetheatre.org