Permanent Collection

For my anniversary present J bought tickets to the play “Permanent Collection” in Berkeley.  Back in June I got all jazzed about seeing the play when I read a review in San Francisco Chronicle and was hoping to go earlier, but it was not to be. But all was not lost, J said she would take me…and she did!

This play is about many things, but it’s mostly about permanent prejudices of race, conservatism (as in resistant to change) and agents of change.  It’s based not-too-loosely on the Barnes museum outside of Philadelphia where there’s a very impressive collection of European and African art on display.  Barnes, who came from working-class roots, was not a fan of the art world, and because he was part of the newly rich, he had the wherewithal both buy great art and display it the way he wanted. For Barnes, it was imporant us to see the paintings, masks and statues without the filter of a museum art director telling you why this or that piece is important. Barnes, like his fictional counterpart in the play, Alfred Morris was an iconoclast who delighted in tweaking the sensibilities snooty rich folks.  But after his death, he left very specific instructions in his will that the collection in his museum was not to be altered in any way.

The Barnes/Morris back story sets up the conflict between the two main characters in the play.The first character we meet is Sterling North.  He’s the newly appointed director of the museum, and happens to be an African -American man who comes from the business world, drives a Jaguar, and wears expensively tailored suits.  His opening monologue is about getting pulled over by the police because he was driving while black through the wealthy neighborhood on his way to work. The story he tells illustrates that despite one’s success in life, if you’re black there are constant indignities, insults, and power plays that whites use to “keep them in their place.” 

Paul Barrow, the other main character, is the museum’s education director who, it is noted, devoted 25 years of his life to the museum and to the vision of Dr. Morris. He was the acting director before Sterling got hired, and his demeanor is that of a guy who was obviously pass over a job he fully expected to get.  He’s white, he dresses in a casual manner (corduroy pants, JC Penny shirt, old baggy jacket), has a book bag, and represents the conservative element in the play. Paul loves the paintings (just like Sterling) but he, like Morris, hates the corporate influence in art.  We know things are not going to go well, when Paul’s first line in the play is panicked query about Sterling’s car (“Is that his Jag out there?”)

As the play unfolds, Sterling wants to add 8 pieces of African art to the permanent collection, and runs into immediate opposition from Paul whose protestations about the will prohibiting any alterations to the collection are a mask for his belief that the African art is inferior to the priceless works of the European masters. Soon, accusations of racism and counter-claims of “selling out the vision of Dr. Morris” escalate the conflict to the point where there are repercussions for both characters. 

The power of this play comes from the amazing performances of the actors, who bring such depth and complexity to their roles that you’re not quite sure who’s in the wrong.  Yes, Paul’s is racially insensitive and snobby about his favorite paintings, but Sterling cannot see the world without looking at it through the lens of racism. Both men are locked in a narrative, a script, a role from which they cannot escape. 

The only character who tries to get these two men to listen to each other is Kanika, Sterling’s assistant.  She too is African American, but is quite a bit younger than the main characters and represents tolerance and acceptance.  But she is also torn by the conflict and starts to see the world more through the lens of entrenched racism than the kind of cosmopolitan tolerance she displayed early in the play.

On the way home from the play, J and I were talking about the play and how there’s often subtle and not-so-subtle resentment that bubbles up when women and people with darker skin come into positions traditionally held by white men. When the “traditional racial and gender hierarchy”  becomes, well, nontraditional, it’s difficult for many to accept the change.  To sooth the wounded pride of those who feel “left out” from what they feel should naturally be theirs, it’s explained this way:  “Oh we had to hire a woman or a minority for, you know, equal opportunity reasons.”

Let’s say you were in a position where you were clearly the minority in a company.  Think about whispers around an office or campus about you, and why you got a job. Think about how it wouldn’t matter how well you did your job, or the skills and education you brought to the job, you would always be seen as that person who was given preferential treatment because of your race or gender. And then flip it, as you become that other person who gives into their prejudices and are consumed with a low-simmering seething rage at “those people” who don’t deserve their job because, in your view, their are “not qualified.”  I know, it’s not pretty.  But what this play does is to make the audience contemplate the ugliness of our human condition when it come to race, gender and power.  The play provides no answers to overcoming our prejudices, but if it sparks discussion or even incrementally nudges us to rethink some of our own prejudices, then it has done its job. I’m happy to report, that this play did indeed do its job.


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