Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Permanent Collection (Karamu)

‘PERMANENT COLLECTION,’ thought provoking, but inconsistent at Karamu

‘PERMANENT COLLECTION’ by Thomas Gibbons is presently in production at the Arena Theatre of Karamu. On the surface the play is about museums, race and culture. But, as one probes deeper, it is about how each of us perceives the world from our own perspective.

Gibson took his inspiration from the true story of the Barnes Foundation, an educational organization focused on art, located in Merion, Pennsylvania, just outside Philadelphia. The Foundation, which boasts one of the greatest collections of post Impressionist art in the world, has suffered great public turmoil since its eccentric founder, Dr. Albert Barnes, died in 1951. In a mind boggling action, Barnes left the foundation’s operation to Lincoln University, a historically black school. Eventually, because of a perceived racial divide, a number of lawsuits drained the Barnes of its endowment.

In the story, Gibbons explores the conflict between the newly-appointed African American director and the museum's longtime Caucasian education director who holds strongly to the museum's charter which forbids any changes to be made in the way the museum’s art is displayed. Fueled by an overzealous newspaper reporter, the private debate becomes public, and both men face off across the great racial divide.

The conflict is captured in a speech by the African American director who states, 'We pretend all things are equal, no culture is higher than another -- but in our hearts we know it's a lie. Shakespeare is better than folk tales. Bach is better than rap."

The play lays bare assumptions, beliefs, and bigotry as it defines itself.

Audience members are very likely to state, “He (Sterling North, the African American director) is right.” “No, (Paul Barrow, the caucasian director) is right.” No, North. No, Barrow. Gibbons’ well conceived use of language and plot devices carries us along on a journey of ever shifting darkness and light.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the play is that Gibbons is a white male. As he did in his wonderful ‘BEE LUTHER HATCHEE,’ which got a fine production at Karamu several years ago, Gibbons treads the line between the races with a deft and articulate hand.

The Karamu production does not live up to the potential of the script. The cast is inconsistent. Director Terrence Spivey failed to work with some of the actors on texturing their performances. Many of the lines are tossed away and lose their meaning. Yelling consistently substitutes for frustration and distress. In spite of this, some of the performances are acceptable.

John Busser is excellent as Barrow, but even he fades in the final scenes and seems to lose his characterization. Joseph Primes (Sterling North) has some excellent scenes as the museum director, especially those in which he is presenting controlled feelings. But he loses control of his voice and the character when he needs to show frustration and strength and fades into an unbelievable shell of the character.

Katrice Monee Headd nicely develops the role of Kanika, the African American assistant. Anne McEvoy consistently develops the role of a reporter, though she needed to be more cunning trying to develop the conflict into her fifteen-minutes of journalistic fame.

Rollin Mac Michael displays no understanding of how to effectively develop a role. He overacts and screams unnecessarily. Iris D. Tucker-Berry says words, avoiding the fact that those words have meaning.

John Konopka’s set design is wonderful. The floor of the theatre-in-the-round is a series of well-created impressionist art. Richard Morris, Jr.’s lighting design allowed for clear transitions.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘PERMANENT COLLECTION’ is an excellent script which has a powerful and though-provoking message. Unfortunately, the Karamu production fails to give full-life to the author’s powerful words and message.

‘PERMANENT COLLECTION’ runs through February 11 at the Arena Theatre of Karamu. For tickets call 216-795-7077.

Karamu’s next productions are the world premiers of ‘GREENSBORO FOUR,’ which runs from January 27 through February 18 in the Jelliff Theatre, and ‘JIM: FLESH AND BLOOD,’ a play about football player Jim Brown.