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Theater Review - Permanent marker

Collection frames racial and artistic debates

The eye of the beholder is a funny thing. A person's point of view can dictate everything from the value of art to the presence of racism. Two people can have diametrically opposite opinions about a piece of artwork or a racially charged episode, and both be "correct."

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Horizon Theatre's production of Permanent Collection uses an escalating conflict in the art world to map out the minefield of modern American race relations. Where contemporary movies usually explore racial issues through violent incidents inflamed by overt bigotry, playwright Thomas Gibbons explores a more insidious and pervasive kind of prejudice. In Permanent Collection, race hostility seems all but dormant until two groups find they have opposing values. Directed by Jeff Adler, Permanent Collection's engrossing drama suggests that generations may pass before America can become truly colorblind.

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Wealthy African-American businessman Sterling North (Gary Yates) introduces the play with a monologue about being pulled over for "Driving While Black." He's understandably angered about the harassment but proud of his new appointment as director of the Morris Foundation, a huge, private collection of Impressionist artwork in a lily-white suburb.

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A corporate vice president and African art connoisseur, Sterling shakes up the institute after he's barely walked through the door. Education director Paul Barrow (Chris Ekholm, seething with mixed motivations) greets Sterling with barely concealed bitterness, and suggests that the foundation's founder (played in flashback by Daniel Burnley) posthumously stipulated African-American control of the institute as a "gesture of contempt" to the arts establishment. It's typical of Permanent Collection that Paul means no racial condescension in his words, and Sterling perceives nothing but.

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Clearly a student of George Bernard Shaw, Gibbons constructs a superb case of two well-intentioned but fatally flawed individuals on a collision course. When Sterling proposes changing the permanent exhibition to include a handful of priceless African art objects languishing in storage, Paul reacts with shock. A war of words plays out in the press (fueled by Shawna Tucker's ambitious journalist), with Sterling suggesting that racism informs Paul's opposition.

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Branded a bigot, Paul becomes unemployable in the hypersensitive worlds of art and academe, despite his strong protests. "The accusation is its own truth," he realizes. Sterling champions racial visibility and Paul advocates for the collection's integrity, but both learn that the race card obliterates all other arguments. Paul turns out to be the more misguided figure, but Sterling suffers from his own blind spots, which Yates conveys with a kind of pre-emptive indignation. Sterling views white people with more suspicion than his young, naive African-American assistant, Kanika (Amy Lauren Griffin).

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Permanent Collection's debates find an ideal arena in Jonathan Williamson's cunning set, which blends reproductions of European impressionists with African architectural flourishes. The play airs stinging arguments between the importance of artistic merit vs. cultural representation, but Permanent Collection's themes reach beyond pretty pictures. The conflict speaks to any setting or venue in which Affirmative Action or a minority group's inclusion becomes a pressing issue.

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Horizon's production features fiery confrontations but can't make up for clunkiness in the script. The premise requires some arduous contrivances to turn eight pieces of artwork into objects of such contention. (Although in real life, the tipping point was even more trivial: Permanent Collection is inspired partly by an incident involving Philadelphia's Barnes Foundation, in which an expanded parking lot became the catalyst for racial accusations and lawsuits.)

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So far in 2006, Atlanta theater has been marked by passionate plays about complex racial issues, with Permanent Collection following Yellowman at Theatre in the Square's Alley Stage, and Jelly's Last Jam at the Alliance Theatre. All three testify that live theater may be an ideal venue for exploring racial themes, particularly in the South. With so many racial concerns still unresolved — and so difficult to talk about — in this country, theater manages to bring diverse audiences into the same space and take the time to air knotty, contradictory points of view. A powerful, pertinent show at a theater like Horizon can help prevent destructive feelings from becoming permanent parts of our national collection.