Permanent Collection, playing at the New Repertory Theatre in Newton, Massachusetts through December 12th, is based on the real-world controversy surrounding the years-long legacy of the Barnes Foundationthe art collection in white, suburban Philadelphia. In the play, Sterling North (Clark Jackson), a black suburbanite with a Jag, is a young family man carrying the burden of success in a white man’s world. Sterling arrives from white corporate culture, as the Morris Foundation’s first black director, to land in white suburbia. Paul Barrow (Benjamin Evett) is the white, long-term education director who’s spent his career defending the now deceased Alfred Morris’ rules for the placement and visibility of its artworks. Sterling’s young assistant, Kanika Weaver (Giselle Jones), whose identity seems liberated in black-white middle class, finds herself caught in the middle of their black and white identities as each is ready to “teach” her about race and art.
Paul and Sterling’s initial meeting is natural, brotherly. And when Sterling discovers a cache of African art archived in the Morris Foundation’s basement, he uses humored patience, expecting to ease Paul into his plans to make the African collection more “visible” within the mainstream gallery. Sterling wills to change Morris’ will of keeping things in their place (after all, Sterling’s father had marched with King to change race relations). Sterling is here to add black to white. But he doesn’t realize he has archived his own intense feelings. And Sterling and Paul must grow to talk about race, even awkwardly as it arises out of the separation, and sequestering, of Morris’ art from black to white. Paul grows inches as he’s kicked into a more complex world outside the Foundation, “slandered” by an accusation of racism extracted from Sterling by a cunning community reporter who teases other private accusations out of the unwitting men and Kanika.
And so, while Paul has internalized Morris’ eccentric will, Sterling, expected to maintain the invisibility of the black art he presides over, feels his old contained angers rise up from that upward struggle for success in white corporate culture. The reporter’s publicized slurs first breed, then fester the situation’s dormant “racism.” “See the world through my eyes,” pleads Paul, now out of work. In the meantime, Kanika enters the gray spaces of age bias and gender bias. Struggling to understand each man, she opts out of both their worlds.
Permanent Collection is about the subtle movements from black to white to gray, depending on what light is shed on the subject, even things “invisible.” And often feelings, reasons for keeping art in the basement, and how to talk about race are invisible.
Solid performances by well-cast Equity actors include Benjamin Evett and Giselle Jones’ portrayal of the chemistry in the emerging friendship between actors in the race game, and what results. Jones immerses herself in Kanika, her delivery well-paced, varied and believable. Tracy Oliverio as community reporter Gillian Crane plays with much control, first breeding, then festering the situation’s dormant “racism.” Sylvia Anne Soares as Ella Franklin and Paul D. Farwell as Alfred Morris also offer exceptional performances.