Last Saturday night I saw Permanent Collection at BoarsHead. My biggest disappointment with the show was how small the audience was. It was a show that was perfectly put together with fine acting and a great script. It's the kind of work that theater needs to be doing--the kind of work that fulfills the mission of theater at a very deep level.
Permanent Collection doesn't preach. It doesn't make trite statements about racism or spout conventional wisdom. Instead, it provides one of the more honest discussions about the topic that have been offered for a couple decades.
In his book Boom! Tom Brokaw says that since the upheaval of the 60s, our society has been unable to have an honest conversation about race. We have too many hot buttons that keep us from tackling the problem head-on in a meaningful way. We talk about race a lot, but we're stuck in unproductive conversations that are simply a teeter-totter of accusations and denials.
Avenue Q came through Wharton last year and had an absolutely brilliant book. One of the songs in it is "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist." I couldn't help but think of the lyrics to that song while watching Permanent Collection. They sing the song in true muppet-style--upbeat, happy, and silly--while offering some extremely wise observations.
It left me wondering how different the outcome of the situation in Permanent Collection could have been if the character of Paul had been able to say to Sterling, "OK, I guess I am being racist. Help me to understand." and if Sterling had been able to respond without anger, arrogance, and smugness. What if both of them had been able to treat each other with compassion and respect and tackled the issue head-on rather than using the issue of racism as a further divider.
How would it change our conversations if we stopped arguing about whether we were or were not racist and instead said, "OK, what I'm doing is offensive. Let's work on it." and that people did not assume that because they were offended by something that the other person is automatically a bad, evil, or ignorant person?
I reviewed Permanent Collection for the Lansing State Journal here. This is one of those shows, though, where the discussion and interaction of it stretches far beyond a simple evaluation of performances and presentation. It's a show that asks a lot of questions and leaves it to the audience to work through them. It isn't educating or preaching, it's the start of a dialog that is important to all of us. In other words, it is theater at its finest.