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STAGE REVIEW

A provocative culture clash of artistic differences

'Permanent Collection' puts racial politics on display

NEWTON -- The New Repertory Theatre has accomplished a lot over the past few years. There's been relatively little comment, though, about the theater's determination to stage plays that directly tackle how blacks and whites talk to one another (and don't) and try to measure how to walk in one another's shoes without walking on eggshells.

After producing "Stonewall Jackson's House" and "No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs" in previous seasons -- both of which struck some raw nerves on race relations -- the New Rep brings "Permanent Collection" to the fore this season. And while he does not entirely avoid the second-act pitfalls of polemics and predictability that bogged down the other two plays, playwright Thomas Gibbons has crafted a provocative study of racial politics, seen through the microcosm of the museum world.

This, you might say, is not the usual place to see a clash of racial cultures. Museums in the United States, and theaters for that matter, don't have huge numbers of African-Americans walking through their doors, which, perhaps, is one of the reasons Dr. Albert Barnes left his amazing art collection, housed outside of Philadelphia, mostly in the hands of Lincoln University, a historically African-American school.

Gibbons, author of other plays dealing with race relations, such as "Bee-luther-hatchee," saw in the problems that resulted from that gift the stuff of contemporary drama, and "Permanent Collection" largely fulfills that vision. There are differences in the problems at the Barnes and the problems at Gibbons's fictional Morris Foundation, but the issues dealt with here make up for the liberties the playwright takes.

The dialectic that Gibbons sets rests between Paul Barrow, the foundation's white director of education and self-anointed caretaker of the Morris vision, and Sterling North, the newly appointed black director of the museum. Though the collection is largely dedicated to Impressionist and post-Impressionist painting, Morris also collected African art, most of which lies in storage in the basement. When North wants to bring it upstairs, he is told that he's violating the terms of the will, so he proceeds to challenge the will as discriminatory.

Gibbons handles the point-counterpoint dynamically, and the New Rep's scintillating production keeps the action moving forward with a profound inevitability, thanks largely to director Adam Zahler, who also directed "No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs" and "Stonewall Jackson's House." Set designer Anita Fuchs smartly frames the action with movable Impressionistic panels, which cast a challenging eye on both men. So, too, does the irreverent ghost of Alfred Morris, played by Paul D. Farwell.

The ensemble acting is excellent, but the sizzle on Gibbons's steak is provided by Clark Jackson as North and Benjamin Evett as Barrow. Jackson makes you feel every bit of his character's pride in his achievements, charm in his bearing, and rage that moves from a simmer to a boil in his feelings that he and African art are being patronized. Evett is equally effective as the keeper of the Impressionist flame, moving from a dweeby ineffectuality to articulate spokesman for his position. In order to get from one place to another, though, he needs to find his inner Machiavelli.

Some of the writing can seem overly schematic. A thoughtless racial comment by Barrow in Act 1 is mirrored in Act 2 by North. The reporter who hangs one man out to dry in the first act will do the same in the second. Is this creating parallel actions or creating polemical opportunities?

Gibbons's writing is solid enough that it doesn't matter much, although the characters do have a tendency in the second act to pontificate.

What Gibbons does particularly well, though, is to maintain a running metaphor between art and political dialogue. Barrow lectures North's assistant, Kanika Weaver (tenderly played by Giselle Jones), on how great artists such as Cezanne or Renoir can make you see the world anew. Barrow even traveled through France trying to see the world through their eyes.

Which begs the question, of course: Why won't he try to see the world through North's eyes? Would it have been so terrible, after all, to have created another room for some of the African-American art? At the same time, North's adamant race-baiting only pours oil on the fire.

Nevertheless, Gibbons, who is white, is not saying that everything would all be hunky-dory if we just empathize with the other person. Standards are only so malleable. Barrow gets the best lines, if not the last word, with the Bloom-like doctrine, "Shakespeare is better than folk tales. Bach is better than rap. And this [Cezanne] is better than that [African figurine that North has become enamored of]."

Gibbons holds out no hope that his characters will ever learn to talk to one another. But the playwright and this fine production hold out considerably more optimism for their audiences.

Ed Siegel can be reached at siegel@globe.com.

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