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Thomas Gibbons explores issues of race and cultural ownership in a play inspired by a museum dispute.

May 04, 2005|Julia M. Klein | Special to The Times

PHILADELPHIA — About six years ago, on the way to the Los Angeles airport, Philadelphia playwright Thomas Gibbons was telling Ben Guillory, producing artistic director of the Robey Theatre Company, about the travails of the Barnes Foundation.

Collector Albert C. Barnes had willed control of his foundation, a trove of 19th and 20th century French paintings and other masterpieces in Merion, Pa., to Lincoln University, a small, predominantly African American school nearby. An African American lawyer named Richard H. Glanton took over as foundation president in 1990 and launched a series of lawsuits, including a civil-rights action against the Barnes' neighbors and local officials.

"You really ought to write a play about that," said Guillory -- and, says Gibbons, "the idea really took root."

It blossomed into "Permanent Collection," which explores the issues of race and cultural ownership and the role of the press in the context of a dispute at the semi-fictional Morris Foundation. The West Coast premiere, a co-production of Robey and the Greenway Arts Alliance at the Greenway Court Theatre in Los Angeles, stars Guillory as foundation director Sterling North.

Gibbons, 50, an admirer of the British playwright David Hare, believes audiences are "starving" for plays that examine social and political issues.

"Most theater in this country is horrendously boring," he says. "Trivial. I have no interest in dysfunctional families. There are 26,417 plays about American families. There are other, far more interesting things to write about."

The connection, Guillory says, between Albert Barnes and Lincoln University, which stemmed from Barnes' long-standing admiration for African American culture and his friendship with Lincoln's president, "caused a conflict that is a natural for the play." "Permanent Collection" is "not just about art -- it's about who has the power, who makes the choices in the world."

Gibbons first stumbled on race as a preoccupation when he wrote the 1993 documentary play "6221," about the infamous MOVE bombing that destroyed a West Philadelphia row-house neighborhood eight years earlier. Gibbons, playwright-in-residence at Philadelphia's InterAct Theatre Company and a medical editor by day, says he was struck by how differently blacks and whites viewed the event. "There was never a moment when I thought that was my subject," he says. "I just found myself being drawn to stories that explored that divide."

Gibbons, who is white, turned to the relationship between race and art in "Bee-Luther-Hatchee," in which a black editor discovers that a black woman's memoir was penned by a white man. The issue of cultural authenticity strikes close to home for Gibbons, who says he tries "to put myself aside" when writing. Guillory says black audience members are often shocked to learn "Bee-Luther-Hatchee," which Robey produced in 1999, and "Permanent Collection" are the work of a white man, so assured is Gibbons' dramaturgical ventriloquism.

Indeed, as Gibbons sat down to write this latest play, he says, "the first thing I had was Sterling's opening monologue," which describes the new director's reactions to being stopped by police while driving to the foundation on his first day of work. "I knew that the play was going to begin with the words, 'Put yourself in my place.' Once I had that part, I quickly realized that before I had anything else, I wanted Act 2 to begin with a monologue by another character."

That character turned out to be the foundation's longtime education director, Paul Barrow, who is white. Barrow clashes with Sterling North when the director wants to take eight African sculptures out of storage and display them, in defiance of the will of Alfred Morris. With the intervention of a seemingly ubiquitous reporter, the conflict quickly escalates, charges of racism fly back and forth, and the Morris Foundation -- like its real-life counterpart -- appears headed for ruin. (Backed by three local foundations, the Barnes received court approval in December to move its gallery to downtown Philadelphia, and a Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision April 27 appears to have cleared away the last legal hurdle to the relocation.)

Gibbons says he explicitly modeled Alfred Morris on Barnes but invented the rest of his characters, as well as the conflict itself. The actual civil-rights suit developed out of local opposition to the foundation's desire to build a new parking lot to support increased attendance. But, says Gibbons, "what really drew my attention was the way in which a dispute about a parking lot became a dispute about something else ... once an accusation of racism was made. Once I started to work on the play, I realized I didn't want to write about a parking lot."

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