Photos by Ed KriegerThe phrase “Put yourself in my place” rings like an anthem in Thomas Gibbons’ eloquent and shrewdly observed drama about the subtleties of racism, labeling and perception. The phrase opens the play, and is spoken by African-American Sterling North (Ben Guillory), the newly appointed director of the Morris Foundation — a suburban art gallery featuring a prodigious display of European Impressionist paintings intermingled with a few ancient African artifacts. Sterling says these words in retrospect, as a way of explaining his actions that we’re about to see: the torpedoing of a white colleague’s career, and the resulting litigation that almost bankrupts the museum Sterling was appointed to rescue. (The play is very loosely based on the troubles at the Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pennsylvania — a private museum founded by eccentric pharmaceutical magnate and art collector Dr. Albert Barnes.) “Put yourself in my place,” Sterling says, before describing his drive to the museum through tree-lined Pennsylvania streets, and being stopped by a patrolman engaged in racial profiling. “Is this your car, sir?” the white officer asked him — a black man in a Jaguar wearing an Italian suit, as though to ask, as Sterling puts it, “Is this your life?” Sterling talks about the “script” for such interactions, and how on that day (the first day at his new job, and for a reason he didn’t fully understand) he departed from that script: “May I ask where you’re going, sir?” the patrolman inquired. “Well, officer, the fact is, legally, you don’t have the right to ask me where I’m going,” Sterling answered before warning the patrolman that “the next cop who pulls me over for being black is going to have his ass sued for a truly staggering amount of money.” Sterling ruminates on his gamble, his victory and the cop’s realization of that victory — like so many white executives who’d badly underestimated him in his earlier corporate career and were shocked to find themselves standing still, while he moved up. Sterling’s opening speech is an aria revealing both humiliation and hubris: The mix will prove to be toxic, and that poison is largely what Gibbons’ play is about. The first refrain of “Put yourself in my place” comes from the museum’s director of education, a white man named Paul Barrow (Doug Cox) who’s been employed by the museum for 25 years and is a disciple of the late founder, Dr. Morris. Paul uses the phrase to describe the invitation made by a painting to see the world through the painter’s eyes — an inclusive vision, Paul insists: “We look and we’re refreshed — maybe even changed, a little. Our own narrow perspective widens, if only by one degree. Over a lifetime of looking, we can learn to see the world in the round.” Paul’s sentiments about broadening points of view may be heartfelt, but they’re also laughable, coming from a man whose driving purpose is to freeze the gallery, every painting in its place, as it’s been for over 50 years, according to Morris’ will. Sterling’s plan, which so outrages Paul, is to introduce into the collection a mere eight African artifacts from the museum’s own vault — artifacts that Morris had himself collected and that have been gathering dust — to supplement the smattering of African pieces already on display. No works are to be removed, according to Sterling’s scheme, which is designed to implement a slight shift in the balance between European and African representations — what Sterling calls “visibility.” Sterling insists: You approach the gallery through an African frame. It’s what Morris intended. Had he not died in a car crash, he would surely have amended the rigidity of his will, especially after 50 years. From Paul’s view, Morris’ will is sacred, and the subtlest change to the gallery’s Eurocentric composition — carefully designed and coordinated by the founder — is a plunge into the abyss: “You stand in this room and you can’t deny what your eyes tell you,” he chides Sterling in a snooty riff against cultural relativism. “Some things are better than others. We can’t say that anymore, not out loud, we don’t want to offend anyone. We pretend all things are equal, no culture is higher than another — but in our hearts we know it’s a lie. Shakespeare is better than folktales. Bach is better than rap. And this [Cezanne] is better than that [African figurine].” “Says who?” Sterling asks. “Says the world,” Paul replies. Were Paul to bother looking outside the gallery, like in the mall, he’d notice they don’t even sell Bach. “Look at the white kids from the suburbs hanging around in the food court,” Sterling barks at him. “They dress exactly like my son — and they sound like him too. Even your children don’t believe in what you want to give them.” Morris’ gallery may be out of balance, but not so Gibbons’ drama, which keeps the antagonists dueling with equal parts piety, delusion and truth — mediated by Sterling’s assistant, Kanika Weaver (LaFern Watkins). None of them holds the larger truth, which floats in the spaces between them, visible to each yet out of their grasp. One day, Paul says too much about the internal conflict to a local newspaper reporter (Gillian Crane). Before firing Paul for the indiscretion, Sterling makes the suggestion, also to the press, that Paul is a racist. Lawsuits are filed, including one for defamation, and Gibbons’ play suddenly shows how labels and epithets distort perceptions, and what an utterly paranoid, defensive, name-calling culture we’ve become, where one foolish or misplaced remark can end a career. Mere accusation becomes its own, unanswerable truth, Paul laments in his Act 2 opening speech that’s launched with the refrain “Put yourself in my place.” Those eight African objects are Gibbons’ eight degrees of separation — and it’s fascinating in Permanent Collection, as in John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation, how a macrocosmic racial divide opens from such a petty squabble. It’s like the inversion of a Greek tragedy, which has its kings and princes arguing over bigger things than where to place a figurine. This Robey Theater Company/Greenway Arts Alliance production, co-directed by Harry J. Lennix and Dwain Perry, is not without its deficiencies (some flat supporting performances on the night I attended — casts alternate), but Guillory and Cox as the principal opponents flesh out their stereotypes and carry the play: the buff African-American oozing with charisma, intelligence and indignation versus the slender, balding white guy — also playing the victim, but with gentle, infuriating fastidiousness, contrasted against his opponent’s bluster. There are some lovely technical elements, such as the gallery/office set (by James Eric and Victoria Bellocq), including striking, translucent paintings and those African figurines; and Joshua Horvath’s rarefied sound design, with its ironic classical and baroque motifs. All roads, however, lead back to the play itself. This company premiered Gibbons’ Bee Luther Hatchee in 1999, a comedy about an African-American book publisher’s fury when she discovers that her favorite, black female author is actually a white guy. The play roasted her by satirizing her racism. Here, Gibbons — a white guy — has evolved as a thinker and playwright. Permanent Collection leaves its judgments to the characters, while, with an open heart and mind, the play loosens the Gordian knot of bigotry by a millimeter or two, then invites us to peer into the openings. What Gibbons reveals there is sad and wise and true. ? PERMANENT COLLECTION | By THOMAS GIBBONS | Presented by ROBEY THEATER COMPANY and GREENWAY ARTS ALLIANCE | GREENWAY COURT THEATER, 544 N. Fairfax Ave.; through May 15. (323) 655-7679.