There's a moment right after he tells the story of a confrontation with a cop where newly minted museum director Sterling raises his eyes and gives the tiniest smile, exquisitely shaped and timed. In that moment it's clear all over again why it's so wonderful that L. Peter Callender has been gracing more intimate venues lately than his usual CalShakes stomping grounds. When the farthest away you can be from that little smile is six rows back, qualities besides his awesome bag of voices come to the fore.
Callender is also doing plays that deal more directly with the African and African-American experience than Shakespeare allows; he just rolled from World Music, TheatreFIRST's searing piece about Rwanda, to Thomas Gibbons' Permanent Collection, now in a fantastic production at the Aurora. Based on the story of a real collector who created a singular museum that eventually suffered near-bankruptcy and legal challenges as a result of his quirky will, Permanent Collection does what few plays indeed, few people dare to do. It raises several critical questions not only about race relations in America, but about how we even begin to talk about them.
The real-life doctor and inventor Albert Barnes was the model for the play's Albert Morris, who appears as a sort of ghost. Alive, Morris loved art and hated the art establishment, so when he built a museum to house his collection of Impressionist and traditional African pieces, he put all sorts of limitations on who could visit, how things could be displayed, and what would happen to the place after he died. These limitations become critically important fifty-odd years after the last gallery is arranged according to Morris' idea of which pieces should be viewed with which others. There are some great African pieces in storage that Sterling would like to display, but it means challenging the ideas of Morris and the director of education Morris hired just before his death, rumpled twenty-year museum veteran Paul (a subtly effective Tim Kniffin).
In the middle of the rapidly escalating conflict between Sterling and Paul are Sterling's assistant Kanika and the wily journalist Gillian, who's looking to liven up her otherwise dull suburban beat by manipulating the museum staff. Paul's interactions with Gillian might as well have forbidding background music behind them while the audience screams, "No, Paul, don't do it! Don't go there!" Melissa Gray plays Gillian with eyes open so wide in feigned sympathy you can see white all the way around her irises. Kanika (the elegant Karen Aldridge) is angelic by comparison, even as she's calling things bullshit and generally speaking her mind (the first thing she says upon hearing how many Impressionist pieces are in the collection: "That's a lot of naked white women"). When she accuses the men of not listening to each other, she's right. Trapped in an old script, they're both falling back to easily defended positions that aren't entirely applicable to what's really going on. Both men keep saying "Put yourself in my place" or "Set aside your own perspective for a moment," but they never do either. Although, as Sterling explains the difference between black and white Americans, "Understanding us has no urgency; nothing depends on it. But we spend every day of our life trying to figure you out."
Callender does noble and dignified well, and it's the quality that most directors exploit regardless of who he's playing. But noble and dignified don't always add up to "right," any more than the disheveled, awkward Paul is automatically "wrong" even if he hasn't honestly examined his own racist attitudes. Because yes, he has them, so deep in the fibers he'd have to do some serious work to tease them out. But is it work he or any white American is truly willing to do? What may have passed for progressiveness in Morris' day (putting out one African mask for every ten paintings of naked white women) won't cut it now. There's still difficult dialogue ahead, and work like Gibbons' fearless Collection makes that clear.
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