"THIS IS MY favorite part of the process," enthused Thomas Gibbons, taking a break from rehearsals of his latest play, "A House With No Walls," at InterAct Theatre Company, where he has been playwright-in-residence since 1993.
Watching him discuss and debate ideas with the actors charged with bringing his characters to life, Gibbons' relish for the collaborative aspects of theater became obvious.
"If you buy into the process as an actor or director," he explained, "you're committed to working together on a project because you all have this common goal. Sometimes that can be difficult, and it can be tense, but you have to do it or you end up with chaos.
"You all understand that three weeks from now, the lights are going up and you've got to be ready. In that sense, theater is a bit of a metaphor for the process of negotiation and compromise and cooperation that ideally we would all like to see."
That negotiation process is especially crucial in Gibbons' plays, which in recent years have dealt with race relations and, in particular, how history impacts the current debate. Of course, living in Philadelphia offers a playwright no end of material to explore those concepts.
"I've wondered just why it is that Philadelphia seems to throw these things up pretty regularly," said Gibbons, who grew up here and now lives in Devon. "And I think it has to do with the fact that, first of all, it's an old city. The entire history of the country is here. It's a Northern city, and some of these issues wouldn't necessarily arise in a city out West.
"So I think the fact that it's an old Northern city that was part of the slave trade, but that was also the center of the whole abolition movement because of the Quakers — all of those things conspire to put the issue of race in history and its ramifications in very sharp relief here."
"A House With No Walls," which opens tonight, was inspired by the ongoing controversy over the new Liberty Bell Center's placement on the site of George Washington's Philadelphia home and, in particular, the quarters that housed nine of Washington's slaves.
In Gibbons' fictionalized scenario, the center is replaced by the fictitious American Museum of Liberty, the construction of which ignites debate between two African-American characters with opposing viewpoints: one conservative, one liberal.
These modern-day events are juxtaposed against the story of Oney Judge, one of Washington's real-life slaves, who attempts to escape with the aid of a white abolitionist.
The task of dramatizing history, Gibbons said, can be particularly daunting. A playwright must juggle the sometimes opposing demands of historical fidelity and narrative interest.
"Obviously, you have to fill in details if the details aren't known," he said. "But I think that when you're dealing with historical fact, you have a picture — the boundaries of which are the facts — and you have to respect those boundaries. Your job as a playwright is to color in the picture as vividly as you can while staying within the boundaries. So it's like you tell your 6-year-old, 'Color in the picture but don't go outside the lines.' "
Concerning the debate over how to acknowledge the history of slavery in America, Gibbons, who is white, stressed the importance of presenting all sides accurately.
"I try to avoid having a character who represents me or my take on the events," he said. "What I'm trying to do is show the different perspectives and the battle between them, and let the audience decide which perspective they think is more valid.
"I don't think there are any easy answers when it comes to race, and I don't want to give the impression to audiences that one side or one perspective is right and the other perspective is wrong. That to me is just too simple."
"No Walls" is the third in a trilogy of Gibbons' plays dealing with similar topics. Previous works were "Bee-Luther-Hatchee" (1999), about an African-American book editor who finds that her recently published memoir of an elderly black woman was written by a white man; and "Permanent Collection" (2003), inspired by controversies at the Barnes Foundation over the future of its renowned art collection.
The playwright's explorations of race began with another piece inspired by Philadelphia history. In 1993, InterAct produced his well-received play "6221: Prophecy and Tragedy," based on the 1985 MOVE bombings.
That experience profoundly changed Gibbons' perception of race relations in America. "Or maybe it's more accurate to say that I saw it as basically everybody sees it," he said, "as something you see on the news, and that you may have to think about once in a while.
"But the experience of rehearsing that play really forced me to recognize the fact that there is a huge gulf between how white Americans see America and American history and how African-Americans see it. Because it seemed that we came up against that gulf every day in rehearsal. It was a real education for me, and I've been writing about the subject of race ever since."
Some of that discussion was evident at rehearsals for "No Walls."
Whenever a break was called, Tracey Conyer Lee, a New York-based, African-American actress who plays the conservative Cadence in InterAct's production, would sit down with Gibbons and question him on her character's motivations.
Lee first encountered Gibbons' work when she read a script for "Bee-Luther-Hatchee." Knowing nothing about him, she assumed he was white based on the ways that black arguments were presented in the play. Later, she was cast in a Florida production of "Permanent Collection."
"I was surprised again when he showed up the first day of rehearsal, a very unassuming, lovely white male," she said. On that production, she recalled, the three African-American cast members confronted Gibbons and question him about his motives.
For herself, "I found it very interesting and not at all problematic that the story is being told by a white writer, as long as the story is being told well," Lee said. "I think that contemporary stories of race and the complexities of race in our current social situation should be told and aren't told enough in intelligent and provocative ways.
"They're often bantered about by figureheads on talk shows. So until we get more voices, I feel like we have to accept the voice that we have."
With the trilogy complete, Gibbons is changing direction for his next project, a long-cherished Chekhov adaptation (he is close-lipped about which of the author's works he plans on tackling). But while he feels that he has exhausted his ideas on race for now, the subject could draw him back again, he said.
"The history of slavery goes back for a couple of hundred years in America," Gibbons said, "and maybe the resolution of that will take another couple of hundred years. I don't know if that sounds pessimistic or just realistic, but I think that we tend to think that history can be dealt with and shrugged off. In fact, the weight of history is very hard to move past.
"These controversies mutate, but they're always arising out of history.
"And I don't really think that they'll stop arising anytime soon. Not in my lifetime. Not in my son's lifetime. Maybe never."