With recent controversies surrounding the so-called Jena Six and the Duke lacrosse team rape fiasco, it’s hard to think of a more timely play than Jubilee Theatre’s current, rough-rattling production of Thomas Gibbons’ Permanent Collection.
The fairly small crowd at last Sunday’s matinee was disappointing, but then again, folks may have been reluctant to spend a sunny fall afternoon being pulled straight into the bloody center of the country’s racial wounds. The show, under the assured direction of TCU Theater Department Chair Harry Parker, is both purgative and sad, like taking in deep lungfuls of oxygen and exhaling even though you know the tensions will continue. The play is based loosely on the real strife surrounding the Philadelphia-based Barnes Foundation, which boasts a world-class selection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works whose stewardship was explicitly outlined in the will of the eccentric rich guy who spent his life assembling it. All of those details form the background of Gibbons’ DELETE, but the playwright takes the facts in explosive new directions: In Jubilee’s show, the renamed Morris Foundation has been placed under the control of a historically black college. The board has installed a black director, the whip-smart and intimidating Sterling North (Sean Massey), whose expertise comes almost exclusively from the business world. Passed over for the position is white Paul Barrow (an appropriately snarky, sadsack-y Trey Walpole), the foundation’s long-time director of education and a single, childless man who has an obsessive passion for European masters like Cezanne and Matisse.
Things get tense when North immediately begins making personnel changes, including putting his own longtime personal assistant Kanika (a touchingly conflicted Shundra Grub) on the payroll. But what really kicks up the firestorm is North’s proposal to move eight pieces of African art from storage into the permanent collection, which would challenge the very specific will of the late collector, Alfred Morris (Eric Devlin, who appears throughout the play as a kind of ghostly jester). Paul’s whole world is the Morris Foundation, and he resists in the name of tradition. Once investigative reporter Gillian Crane (Lana K. Hoover) starts sniffing around, public accusations of racism fly from both camps, protesters begin to assemble outside the building, and it again becomes apparent what many of us already know: The black Sterling and the white Paul not only live in very different worlds, they are seemingly trapped in them.
Permanent Collection is fairly schematic. At times, the exchanges feel a little like Fox News-style talking heads trying to out-yell each other. But there’s so much truth-telling in this show, and it’s written with such a rare clarity and delivered so acutely and passionately by the Jubilee cast that the production frequently mesmerizes. It’s probably impossible for different ticketbuyers to drop their own racial baggage at the theater entrance, but, for me, Massey’s performance as crusading foundation director North was hot, molten steel but with very little flesh. The actor reveals not a scintilla of vulnerability, doubt, or reflection. The playwright may well have intended the role to depict an African-American male utterly corroding from the inside with resentment about his status in American society, and, if so, North nails it. But he lacks the complexity that Grub as Kanika brings to her role, manifest primarily in her speeches about feeling exhausted by racism, both overt and subtle, but also determined to be hopeful because, well, she doesn’t have much choice (except, this show seems to imply, letting herself be consumed by the paranoid rage that Sterling embodies). That’s just one white dude’s opinion, though, and, as Permanent Collection so expertly demonstrates, stepping out of your own skin and into another’s is a feat of Herculean proportions. — Jimmy Fowler
Thru Oct 28 at 506 Main St, FW. $14-$20. 817-338-4411.
Usually, the Fort Worth Symphony does pit duty for Texas Ballet Theater, but last weekend the two went separate ways. TBT gave an evening of short repertory pieces in Dallas’ Majestic Theater using mostly taped music, and, at Bass Hall, FWSO hosted pianist Alexander Kobrin, winner of the last Van Cliburn Competition, in a performance of the Chopin First Piano Concerto. Both events were first-class. TBT featured a revival of artistic director Ben Stevenson’s L, created as a tribute to Liza Minnelli for a Houston Ballet fund-raiser while he was head honcho there. Set to a percussion score by Don Lawson and using 10 male dancers, the piece conjured visions of Etudes on steroids. As in that Harald Lander ballet, the L dancers started in formal classical positions and ended up in a whirlwind of acrobatic crossovers that had the audience standing and cheering before the piece was even finished. In between were a gentle parody of a classical pas de deux danced by Gregory Brown and Lonnie Weeks, a subtle cabaret strip-tease wonderfully performed by Alexander Kotelenets and Justin Urso, and solo show-stoppers by Thomas Kilps, Eduardo Zuniga, and Andre Silva.
Stevenson also trotted out Laila and the Swan, a ballet he recently created to acknowledge TBT board member Laila Gleason, one-time performer with the Pilobolus modern dance group. Inspired by the Greek myth of Leda and the Swan, Stevenson set the piece to the elegiac music of Lizst’s Sonetto del Petrarca No. 104, ravishingly played (on the record) by Roberto Plano, another Cliburn Competition finalist. Carl Coomer, in a blue leotard and waving two oversized fans suggesting rustling feathers, was the brilliantly realized swan that seduced the Greek queen, sensitively danced by Carolyn Judson. It was the sort of ingratiating specialty dance that was once common in mixed performances. Budding choreographer Peter Zweifel, a young dancer with the company, also created a new modern ballet, Glimpse, for seven dancers, set to tribal drums and chants. Full of clever moves and interesting ideas, the piece nonetheless cried out for less unison dancing and a place for viewers to rest their eyes. The frenetic energy with which the piece unfolded seemed non-stop; even the slow sections were taut with tension. When Zweifel settles down to smell the flowers, there’ll be a lot to admire in his work.
No program of this kind is complete without showpieces, and TBT gave us three. The 16-year-old Weeks, who took the bronze in the junior division of the International Dance Competition in Shanghai in August, partnered Jayme Autrey Griffith in the duet from La Sylphide. In the unusual early 19th-century confection, the dancers don’t touch until the final pose. The engaging couple was sympathetic to the low-key, romantic style. Enrica Guana Tseng and Lucas Priolo danced with elegance and regal attitude in Stevenson’s version of the pas de deux from Sylvia. But the showpieces section was dominated by Leticia Oliveira and Silva in the flamboyant pas de deux from Don Quixote. The Brazilian pair put on a show of fast-paced turns, jumps, and dazzling virtuosity that wouldn’t have looked out of place on the Bolshoi stage in Moscow.
At the Bass, the virtuosity was more poetic, with Kobrin luxuriating in the early romantic piano melodies of Chopin. Surely no one has ever found more tonal color or exhibited more sensitivity to the instrument’s possibilities than the popular Polish composer, and these qualities are Kobrin’s bread and butter. He can compete with the best in the speed department, but he also has a transcendant lyric side. Led by Miguel Harth-Bedoya, the Fort Worth Symphony provided Brahmsian heft to the accompaniment, as if to compensate for Chopin’s thin orchestrations, and the effect was sometimes startling.
More compelling was Harth-Bedoya’s reading of Edward Elgar’s “Enigma Variations,” conducted without score. While Harth-Bedoya’s heart is with his young contemporaries, he has a wonderful instinct for the grand symphonic tradition, which is making him a major player both here and abroad. — Leonard Eureka
Contact Kultur at firstname.lastname@example.org.