Arts » Theater

Painted in a Corner

Racism in the art world gets slathered on too thickly.

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Of all the possible venues for racial discrimination, the least likely might seem to be a museum. After all, the world of art itself is such a fertile area for disagreements and disputes, it would seem to suck out all the oxygen needed for race-based political gamesmanship. Then again, maybe not.

Based on an actual situation that occurred at a Philadelphia arts foundation, Permanent Collection by Thomas Gibbons presents a pulsing montage of conflicts involving race, artistic taste, and egos on the rampage. Placed on a handsomely decorated stage at Karamu's Arena Theatre, the production suffers from too many one-dimensional performances to successfully deal with the many strands of discontent the script puts into play.

The Morris Foundation, a museum housing masterpieces by Picasso, Renoir, Matisse, and more, has been bequeathed to a black university by the will of its cantankerous and eccentric founder, Dr. Alfred Morris. The foundation is now being led by new director Sterling North, an African American coming from his most recent post as a VP of a large corporation, but without an art background.

On a tour of the museum, North finds some extraordinary African art in storage and wants to bring it out. But he immediately clashes with Paul Barrows, the white director of education and the keeper of the founder's vision. Barrows claims the changes would be heresy, and the short-tempered North responds with charges of racism. Soon, the whole community is up in arms.

In a series of short and sometimes fragmented scenes, Gibbons has interesting things to say about how artists are influenced by their peers (Morris arranged the exhibits to illustrate these connections, so he didn't want them messed with). But the tension between North and Barrow ignites so quickly, there is little time to process their relationship -- not to mention their differing approaches to art.

The Karamu cast, under the direction of Terrence Spivey, largely work from a palette of primary colors in creating their roles, losing much of the shading that would resonate more fully. Joseph Primes is an imposing presence as North, but his hair-trigger responses seem out of context with both the provocations he faces and his previous corporate background. As Barrow, John Busser is virtually a blank slate, displaying little of the charm that a person with his job might logically possess. (Also, his passion for the art he loves seems grafted on, not emerging from within.)

Meandering through the proceedings is the ghost of Alfred Morris, who relates anecdotes from his colorful life. He is played by Rollin "Mac" Michael in a performance that unwisely substitutes yelling -- along with randomly distributed pauses and yelps -- for character development. Katrice Monee Headd, as North's personal assistant, also overtorques a scene after she's been fired.

Performing power is often the result of the small, deft strokes that are sadly absent in this production. But it inadvertently illustrates why most artists, given a choice, will reach for a red sable brush and not a paint roller.

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