Irish-American playwright takes on another African-American debate
People often are surprised when they learn that Thomas Gibbons is Irish-American.
The reason is simple: Most of his plays deal one way or another with race and racism and how they shape our cultural attitudes. His plays usually depict in-depth black characters as well as whites.
That's the case with "Permanent Collection," the second in a proposed trilogy that began with "Bee-Luther-Hatchee," which was staged by the Unicorn Theatre in 2003. The third, like "Permanent Collection," will be inspired by actual events in Philadelphia, where Gibbons is based.
"Permanent Collection" dramatizes a clash of cultures when a foundation with a fabulous collection of impressionist paintings is willed to an African-American university, and a new director seeks to display the foundation's warehoused African art collection to counterbalance what he sees as the Euro-centric paintings on display.
"There's a place outside Philadelphia called the Barnes Foundation," Gibbons said in a recent telephone interview, "which is primarily known for its amazing collection of impressionistic art, although Albert Barnes, the man who collected all of this, bought things from all over the world.
"But he was primarily interested in the impressionists and the post-impressionists. And the foundation has a really amazing collection of Cezanne, Matisse, Renoir. It has more Cezannes than all the museums of Paris combined. And it has 180 Renoirs."
Barnes, whose eclectic tastes included African art, died in 1951 but stipulated that after the death of his hand-picked successor the foundation would pass to Lincoln University, a historically black school.
When a new director, a successful attorney without an art background, proposed building a parking lot to help attract more visitors, neighborhood property owners objected. The dispute led to a protracted legal conflict with both sides exchanging charges of racism and libel.
That was Gibbons' point of departure. The play's Morris Foundation is clearly modeled on the Barnes Foundation.
"With the exception of the character of Dr. Morris, who is pretty closely modeled on Barnes, all the characters are my invention," Gibbons said. "And more importantly the whole central conflict of the play is my invention.
"The fact that the new director finds this significant African art in storage and proposes that they be brought out and put on display in the permanent collection that I completely invented, basically because I didn't want to spend two years writing about a parking lot.
"I guess I saw the whole controversy as a way of addressing some issues that have always fascinated me and in some ways the issues are akin to those raised in ‘Bee-Luther-Hatchee.'"
The third play will be based on another Philadelphia controversy involving a new city-built pavilion for the Liberty Bell that was constructed directly over the site of quarters for George Washington's slaves when Philadelphia was the capital.
"As in 'Permanent Collection,' I'm fictionalizing that to some extent," he said. "But the basic dramatic situation is the same. And one of the questions the play is about is what do we choose to remember? And what do we choose to forget? And who makes those choices? These three plays looked at the same or very related central questions but from different perspectives ‘Bee-Luther-Hatchee' from literature, ‘Permanent Collection' from art and this new play from the point of view of history."
"Permanent Collection" was first done at InterAct Theatre in Philadelphia, where Gibbons is the resident playwright. Then it was produced at Florida Stage in West Palm Beach.
Originally the National New Play Network, a coalition of small theater companies dedicated to developing new work, had provided funding for a shared world premiere involving InterAct, Florida Stage and the Unicorn. But as word about the play got out, other companies wanted to do it "to my complete delight," Gibbons said.
Other recent productions include the Kitchen Dog Theater in Dallas, the Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis and the New Repertory Theater near Boston. Productions are scheduled at Northlight Theatre in Chicago; the Arizona Theatre Company, Center Stage in Baltimore and the Robie Theater Company in Los Angeles.
"It's been incredibly gratifying to see the response that it's getting," Gibbons said. "I'm going around to see all the different productions because I want to see how the play works in different size theaters. It tells me a lot about the play. And I'm kind of tinkering with it as I talk to the directors of the different productions."
Gibbons, 50, is lifelong resident of Philadelphia and has been writing plays about 25 years.
"I'm the typical overnight success," he said. "I've been slogging away at it for a long, long time."
Gibbons' interest in questions of racism goes back to the early 1990s when he wrote a play called "6221" about the notorious 1985 MOVE bombing in Philadelphia. In a standoff with a militant back-to-nature African-American group, Philadelphia police dropped a bomb from a helicopter that started a fire that burned out of control for hours, killing several people and destroying an entire neighborhood.
"That's what got me started on exploring this whole issue," he said. "That play was a big documentary, three hours with about 15 actors just about evenly divided between white and African-American actors. In the course of rehearsals it became very clear to me that the African-American actors and white actors had very different takes, not only on the events of that day, but just about any issue that came up.
"To take the most obvious example raised by the play is that their perspectives toward the police were completely different. Rehearsals were frequently very tense and confrontational. I began to see something I should have probably known long before that, but I guess it had never been brought home to me that immediately, that there was this huge divide between white experience and African-American experience. And that's pretty much what I've been writing about ever since."
Gibbons has occasionally encountered criticism for being a white writer creating black characters expressing a black point of view.
"Some criticism, but not as much criticism as puzzlement," he said. "The usual reaction is that people are surprised, first, that I'm white. I get that a lot. I've gotten very funny reactions from actors in ‘Bee-Luther-Hatchee,' particularly, when I've gone to see the play and they didn't know whether I was white or black. So it's not so much criticism as puzzlement and curiosity."
Still, there has been direct criticism, some of which inspired "Bee-Luther-Hatchee," in which a supposed memoir of an old black woman is revealed to have been written by a white man.
Gibbons recalled that during talk-backs after performances of "6221," some people objected to his presuming to write about the event at all.
"There was one guy who really tore into me," he said. "Because for him, it belonged to his history, and therefore I couldn't write about it in a valid way. And I began to think about that whole issue. To me it raised interesting questions about what it means for something to be authentic. And ‘Bee-Luther-Hatchee' was a way of addressing that whole question."