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Racism subject of church group's play

Dignity Players tackle social justice themes in Annapolis.
By Jane Greer
8.3.07

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Actors Kelly Armstrong (left) and Chris Haley (Richard Rohlfing, R.A.R.E. Photographic)

Actors Kelly Armstrong (left) and Chris Haley in the play Permanent Collection put on by Dignity Players at the UU Church of Annapolis, Md. (Richard Rohlfing, R.A.R.E. Photographic)

Permanent Collection, a play illustrating racial prejudice set in the art world, will be staged this coming weekend at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Annapolis, Md., starting Friday evening, August 3. The play is the seventh production by the Dignity Players, a part of the church’s “Arts in the Woods” program that brings the arts to the church and the wider community. Dignity Players was founded on Unitarian Universalism’s First Principle, which affirms “the inherent worth and dignity of every person.”

The play tells the story of a newly-appointed director of an art collection—an African-American—who clashes with one of the museum’s white directors over the display of significant African artwork that has been in storage. The plot is loosely based on a real story in which a wealthy collector of European and African art bequeathed his collection with restrictions about its arrangement and location, causing controversy among its later custodians.

Permanent Collection raises questions about race, what constitutes art, and how to deal with the wishes of an eccentric benefactor. After two of the performances, the church’s Antiracism Transformation Team will lead a discussion with the audience about issues raised by the play.

“This is one of the most exciting things that a church can do,” said Sue Struve, a cofounder of Dignity Players. “With so many schools and communities cutting back on the arts, it’s good that a church can step in to help fill the void. Seeing live theater is a wonderful way to get people thinking and feeling.”

Permanent Collection was written by Thomas Gibbons and has been performed in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Boston. One of the members of the Antiracism Transformation Team saw the play performed and suggested that Dignity Players might want to take it on.

Dignity Players, an all-volunteer organization founded in 2004, considers it their mission to tackle difficult issues. “It’s about exploring the meaning of our First Principle,” said Struve, “about the inherent worth and dignity of all people.” As part of this mission, the players have presented plays about the death penalty, homosexuality, and women’s issues. Previous productions include The Exonerated (stories of death row inmates), The Laramie Project (about the death of gay student Matthew Shepard), The Vagina Monologues (stories about women’s bodies), Dead Man Walking (about the relationship between a nun and a death-row inmate), and Death and the Maiden (about rape and revenge). They are currently working on Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, which will be performed in October.

Dignity Players are teaming up with the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Fund Committee, which will receive part of the revenue, to draw an African American audience to Permanent Collection performances.

Dignity Players are financially self-sufficient, sustaining themselves with the proceeds from their shows. Most performances are held in the church’s sanctuary, which limits the amount of scenery that can be used. But it’s a limitation that works to the group’s advantage. Said Mickey Handwerger, the group’s artistic director, cofounder, and a member of the church: “I think it’s really important for the audience to pull the message from the script. The script is the central feature.”

The group has been steadily building an audience, said the Rev. Fredric Muir, the Annapolis church’s minister, who praised the group for the high quality of their productions. “They have a niche all their own. You don’t see other groups tackling social justice issues the way they have.”


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