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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
The timing was equally worthy, as the play deals with racial issues inspired by the story of the Barnes Museum in Pennsylvania where the fabulous art collection of eccentric millionaire Albert Barnes was left to Lincoln University, a small historically black institution. Barnes' proviso was that nothing be changed from the way in which he had assembled it. With curator-like gusto, he arranged Modiglianis next to the African-American sculptures that inspired them. Since his death, the musem has been plagued with lawsuits.
In Gibbons' fictional version, an African-American businessman Sterling North (Ben Guillory) opens the play with a monologue about being stopped by the police for no reason. His Jaguar caught the officer's eye because he was DWB (Driving While Black). For once, North does something he's cautioned his 17-year-old son never to do: talk back. He does it gleefully because he is on his way to his first day as curator of the Morris Museum.
This sets the stage for North's background and authenticates his stubborn desire to bring more African-Ameican art works out of the storage room. He runs afoul of Paul Barrow (Doug Cox), long-time Director of Education, who insists on protecting Alfred Morris's legacy as he intended. He asserts that change, even of such an odd and quirky individual vision, isn't necessarily better. "There's the reason given and there's the reason, and they are two different things," says North. This dispute with its accompanying charges of racism, libel and lawsuits, is the stuff the drama is made of and rancorous charges are debated at length. The play's history and plot are thoroughly covered in our review of the Washington production. (See link below). Though structured as a dogmatic debate, the play addresses the fascinating polarities of the integrity of an individual's artistic vision and the powerful justice of racial equality. Like all human conflicts, it may be a pissing contest, in the words of North's secretary Kanika, but it takes the debate between racial quality and artistic rights to a different plane and one worth reviewing. .
Under director Dwain Perry the pace is a little slow. The men's arguments are weighty and measured where they should crackle and hiss. The set's sienna walls are a backdrop for facsimiles of masterpieces and a few African sculptures. The pictures become transparent when someone walks behind them, as if to emphasize the importance of the viewer to the viewed. Alfred Morris (Kent Minault) first appears framed in a picture. He comments from time to time, sometimes on the action, sometimes just sharing a viewpoint or experience.
Guillory plays North as a big, amiable sleek executive and never reduces the part to a screaming fit. Cox makes Barrow a by-the-book academic who has no life outside the museum but whose love of art and respect for the individual vision make him a perfect foil for North. Minault plays Alfred Morris as an avuncular, weird and slightly nasty eccentric. He grants a young female reporter an interview, only to answer all her questions in French. "We didn't understand each other's language," he says. This curious and somewhat superfluous scene has the feeling of a real anecdote used as a rather heavy-handed metaphor.
LaFern Watkins almost dances her part, in a delicious interpretation of North's secretary Kanika. She is the show's fulcrum, futilely attempting to mediate between the contestants. She rightly compares their feud to a pissing contest which, in the end, nobody wins.
When the new curator tells Cox her mandate is to "keep the lights on" it's Morris who has the last word, saying, "None of us can see in the dark". It's a dubious interpretation of the founder's assessment of the action and speaks for us more than the character.
To read our review of the DC production of this play go here.
Leonard Maltin's 2006 Movie Guide
Leonard Maltin's Classic Movie Guide
>6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by our editor.
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