Florida Studio Theatre’s new production starts a provocative discussion.
By Kay Kipling
It’s always a welcome thing when audience members leaving a play find themselves with something to talk about. And there’s plenty to discuss after viewing Florida Studio Theatre’s production of Thomas Gibbons’ Permanent Collection.
Playwright Gibbons (whose Bee-luther-hatchee has also appeared on the FST stage) uses as his starting point the true story of the Barnes Foundation near Philadelphia, which was in the news a few years ago because of a dispute over the founder’s will and a new director’s controversial plans. Onstage, that storyline evolves into a constantly changing one dealing with art and racism, and who gets to make choices about what art we see.
The opening monologue by new collection director Sterling North (Kim Sullivan, looking and sounding very much the part of a successful African-American businessman) begins with a line that recurs throughout the play: “Put yourself in my place.” In his case he’s talking about the humiliation of being stopped by a cop for DWB (driving while black), a situation he’s faced before and knows how to cope with. Still, he’s not in the mood for anyone at his new job questioning his decisions, especially the one about pulling some African sculptures out of storage to place beside the collection’s Impressionist works.
The main person questioning that is the institution’s longtime education director, Paul Barrow (Jeffrey Plunkett), a white man who’s dedicated much of his life to the place and who believes the founder’s will (which stipulates none of the exhibits can be changed) should be honored. Again, he asks us to put ourselves in his place—but that’s something the characters in this highly charged piece have a hard time doing. Caught in the middle is North’s assistant, Kanika (Donei Hall), whose youth and openness make her better able to see the places both men are coming from, even as she, too, pays a price in an escalating war of words played out in the press.
Gibbons and the FST cast succeed in making these people individuals, not just standard bearers for a cause; and our emotions and opinions are batted back and forth rapidly between them throughout the evening. There are no pat answers or solutions to the problem of racism and the use of the word to inflame; there is some hope, perhaps, in the differences between the middle-aged men of the play and the younger Kanika that the subtle racism buried deep within most of us could one day disappear.
Permanent Collection runs through April 6; call 366-9000 for tickets or go to fst2000.org.