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PERMANENT COLLECTION

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Few would deny that racism still is one of America's biggest problems. Playwright Thomas Gibbons explores the grayer shades of the subject in his latest work, an intriguing if not wholly original story. In its West Coast premiere, co-directed for the Robey Theatre Company by Dwain Perry and Harry J. Lennix, its overall effectiveness is weakened by several uneven and stilted performances.

The central location is The Morris Foundation, which has an art collection filled with paintings from European artists, as well as works from Africa. The foundation, located in a predominantly white suburb, was founded by the late Dr. Morris (Kent Minault). In his will, Morris gave control over the collection to a historically black university, which, in turn, named as its new curator Sterling North (Ben Guillory), a successful business executive, who is black. North petitions the board of directors to ignore Morris' wishes that his collection not be altered, as well as to add eight pieces of African art from storage. Paul Barrow (Doug Cox), the foundation's education director for more than 20 years, who is white, is outraged. The story reaches the public through Gillian Crane (Kiersten Morgan), a local newspaper reporter, who quotes North as saying Barrow is a racist. Caught in the middle of the two men's battle is North's assistant (LaFern Watkins), who feels loyalty to her boss, but who befriends Barrow. And there's Morris, who appears in flashbacks and spirit-like confessions to the audience.

The cast has difficulty injecting the conflict with electricity. Guillory brings the ambiguity in North's personality to light, but his delivery is stiff. Cox nails the moments when Barrow discusses his love for art, but the rest of his performance is emotionally uninteresting. The role of Crane, the hard-nosed, anything-for-a-story reporter is the script's weakest link, and Morgan doesn't help matters by playing it over-the-top and mostly for laughs. The most honest and engaging performances come from Watkins and Minault. As Weaver and Morris, they express voices of reason and wild eccentricity, respectively. Plays such as this one are an effective tool for discussing how and why racism still permeates this country. And this production, despite its shortcomings, tells the story well.

"Permanent Collection," presented by the Robey Theatre Company in association with the Greenway Arts Alliance at the Greenway Court Theatre, 544 N. Fairfax Ave., L.A. Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 3 p.m. (Also Sun. 7 p.m., May 8 & 15.) Apr. 15-May 15. $20-25. (323) 655-7679, ext. 100.

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