Of Masks and Men

Poet Louise Bogan writes, "True revolutions in art restore more than they destroy." The same could be said for the theater of ideas. Thomas Gibbons' most recent stage examination of the great American race divide, Permanent Collection, promises to resuscitate audiences who have become catatonically content with theater whose fiction keeps reality at a comfortable distance. Despite being entirely contemporary, the literacy and locution of this play return us to Shakespeare and the Greeks, whose theater served as a public forum in which the audience could watch its greatest moral dilemmas being played out.

When Dr. Alfred Morris (Dan Leonard), self-made millionaire and renegade art collector, dies, he bequeaths the control of his foundation to a traditionally black university, and African-American outsider Sterling North (John Archie) takes the helm. It's an act that Paul Barrow (David Mann), long-time protégé of Mr. Morris and the foundation's director of education, calls "an act of vengeance against the corporately funded arts establishment that Morris vehemently despised." When North discovers a brilliantly rendered 17th-century Nigerian copper mask on display and a wealth of African art in storage, he proposes adding eight pieces to the foundation's permanent collection, sending Barrow into a frenzy. He claims it would unjustly disrupt the late Morris' vision as well as legally violate his will, which dictates that nothing be altered in the collection. A battle ensues that is more about race than art. As the men engage in a series of intense dialogues, their masks of civility and political correctness fall away, revealing a conundrum of repressed emotions and conflicting assumptions. The tension is exacerbated when overly zealous suburban reporter Gillian Crane (skillfully played by South Florida veteran Elizabeth Dimon) comes on the scene. Crane publishes an article in which North calls Barrow a racist. Tempers fly, and all bets are off (thankfully) for an amicable ending. Instead, what we get is a compelling and thought-provoking look at this country's most intractable issue: race.

Despite the emotionally charged material and resonant performances, Permanent Collection is a highly cerebral play. Although the subject is art, this play is not a visually oriented piece. Cindi Blank Taylor's set is largely utilitarian, sparse, and almost glib. The carefully arranged golden ornate frames before the audience are empty, almost mocking the renowned brush strokes of the great impressionists they are supposed to represent. Permanent Collection is not a feast for the eyes, but it is a veritable banquet for the orator, the rationalist, and the social philosopher. In many ways, it is like watching an argument being played out. Physicality is minimal, and action is almost ancillary, but it works as a play because the argument is so deftly constructed and the metaphor of art so far-reaching.

Characteristically, Florida Stage has assembled a highly capable and professional cast. John Archie and David Mann, as North and Barrow, are so dynamic and completely centered in their characters that they maintain a constant hold on the audience. William Partlan's direction is spot-on, except for one aspect of the character of Barrow. Although he supposedly has advanced degrees and has spent 25 years working at the foundation, Barrow has the air of a much younger and significantly less experienced man than North. Portraying the two more as contemporaries would lend even more substance to their conflict. Tracey Conyer Lee plays Kanika, North's assistant, with the necessary range to make North and Barrow look empathetic. She is the only character who understands both men, giving the audience a lens through which we can better understand their flaws and virtues. Dan Leonard's Alfred Morris is a sort of Ross Perot of the art world, rising from the dead for several short, brash, opinionated monologues, providing levity to this weighty text.

Besides dealing with race in general, Permanent Collection is a sharply critical look at the haves and have-nots of the art world, in which large museums reel in the corporate dollars for program development and minority organizations are always trying just to keep the lights on. At the heart of the matter is an old paradox: the sanctity of one individual's vision versus society's right to have art reflect the broader culture in which it is displayed. One can't help but look around the theater and wonder what it means that this debate is being played out in Palm Beach County for an audience where the only African-Americans are the three members of the cast. It can't be denied that the play is a reflection of what it criticizes, which makes it all the more an interesting selection for Florida Stage's producing director, Louis Tyrrell, who regularly embeds a controversial piece into the company's season.

The biggest strength of Permanent Collection is that, while on the surface we may be familiar with the scenario (angry black man, insular white man), as we watch North and Barrow spar their way through accusations of racism and reverse racism, we really don't know what's going to happen. Will they destroy each other? Will they reconcile? Art and politics want to exist without each other, but in trying to do this, they threaten to ruin each other. The same could be said of these two men. One thing is clear: Permanent Collection promises not to neatly resolve the issue but to further it by lifting the masks that lie between emotion and reason, façade and reality. Permanent Collection is a reminder of how much as a culture we value "the bottom line" and how frequently this leads us to oversimplify complex issues into dangerously false generalizations. If art could be a metaphor for anything, it's that we must live with it to know it. One leaves the theater thinking that our country's most pivotal issues should be given at least the time and consideration that Barrow gives in his eloquent description of Cézanne's Mount St. Victoire. If anything, the play insists that understanding can come only if we persist in relationships, with art and each other, over time.

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Mia Leonin