Subtle shades of race color this artwork

Published May 4, 2007

The problem with plays that center on ideas rather than characters or plot lines, often, is that they devolve into polemics, diatribes or lectures.

The beauty of Thomas Gibbons' Permanent Collection is its stubborn refusal to take sides in the debate about racism at its core. Although Gibbons imbues all his characters with vehemence, he also allows them sufficient intellect; they're alternately, and sometimes simultaneously, reasonable and irrational. Audience allegiance with each character, and each point of view, shifts continually.

A cast largely made up of local theater stalwarts in the current production at Studio@620 brings added power to Gibbons' play, even if the wordiness occasionally compromises their efforts.

The premise is that an iconoclastic art collector has died and left his world-class collection to a small and traditionally African-American university. The collection is so comprehensive and so important it makes those of some major museums seem puny.

Control of the collection is left to one university trustee, an African-American corporate executive. He is determined to make changes to the collection as it is displayed. He wants to add a few examples of African folk art.

His plan incenses a longtime staff member, who is adamant the displayed collection should remain exactly as it has for 50 years, nothing added or moved.

The new director sees everything - in life, business and art - in terms of race. The staffer sees nothing in those terms. Ultimately, Gibbons allows us to see racism in both points of view.

Bob Devin Jones is stately as Sterling North, the black executive. But Jones always lets us feel the rage and even hate seething just below his businesslike faade.

Matt Huffman is amiable as Jones' adversary, and not always appropriately so. His one-note performance often seems studied, and sometimes even insincere.


'Permanent Collection'

Through Sunday at Studio@620 620 First Ave. S, St. Petersburg. At 8 tonight and Saturday; 7 p.m. Sunday. $10 general, $5 seniors and students. (727) 895-6620.