In her first fully-produced play, Nicole Parizeau presents an exciting and sophisticated analysis of the age-old dilemma of whether to appreciate a fabulous work of art when the artist is a failed human being. This is a subject we have all discussed at one time or another. Can we, or should we, in good conscience, enjoy viewing the work of artists who have committed heinous crimes and misdemeanors or otherwise behaved badly? Does the context or era in which the artist lived make a difference in how we measure the offensive behavior? In other words, can we ever really separate the art from the artist?
The Human Ounce, well-directed by Gary Graves, is a fascinating, lively, and well-acted 75-minute, three-person presentation, which takes place in an unnamed museum. One employee, Jory (Champagne Hughes), who seems young and reacts emotionally, insists that the more senior curator, Biz (Kimberly Ridgeway), remove a 19th-century painting from the museum’s walls when an article in Art News reveals that the artist, aptly named Arthur Gelding, was a pedophile.
Biz initially takes a longer view, citing the museum’s broad mission to present all artistic endeavors and arguing that the painting, a lovely landscape, should stand on its own merits without regard to its creator’s monstrous crimes. The museum’s work-clad installer Dodge, (Don Wood) interjects a less intellectual perspective into the women’s conversation, by insisting that he doesn’t want to have to worry about the political correctness of what art he likes, what movies he sees, what his shoes are made of, and, what food shops he frequents.
The Human Ounce dissects an extensive and disquieting list of wrongdoers, from Caravaggio (murderer), Agatha Christie (racist writings) and Eric Clapton (racist remarks) to Gauguin (lived with under-aged native girls) and Picasso (misogynist), and the many anti-Semites, including recently revealed Nazi sympathizer artist Emil Nolde. Even our own Peet’s Coffee & Tea is not immune from microscopic scrutiny since the German Reimann family, (JAB Holding Company), who have admitted their ancestors’ links to Nazi forced labor, is the majority owner.
The debate between Jory and Biz, who are both African American women, in a field in which they are sorely underrepresented, becomes a bit artificial and stilted as they each speak in complete and uninterrupted articulate paragraphs — better to present the arguments, but perhaps less effective as dialogue in a play. Yet the drama, with its fine acting and direction, is persuasive and thoroughly engaging as it explores this complicated and multi-faceted subject. And there is a surprise ending that twists the plot in an unexpected way.
Since Central Works only writes, develops, and produces world premiere plays, one never knows what each new season will bring. I look forward to more pleasant surprises in this 30th season.
For information about the play, extended dates and tickets, call 510.558.1381 or visit http://centralworks.org/