Central Works opens its 30th anniversary season with A Human Ounce, a new play by Nicole Parizeau that poses provocative questions. What is the value of great art, literature, music, commerce, scientific discovery — even Peet’s coffee — when scandalous information about its creators or owners comes to light? What standards determine responsibility when an institution or individual chooses between a masterpiece or much-desired item and its maker’s monstrous behavior?
Presenting historical perspectives and benefiting from the heft of obvious, contemporary relevance — think Harvey Weinstein, Charlie Rose, Bill Cosby, etc. — the answers in the company’s 66th world premiere production on Sunday night boiled and churned in what was, essentially, a 75-minute argument. Starting the dispute at a high pitch and remaining there as directed by Gary Graves, this meant that the script spun its wheels at times and lost some of its punch. Even so, the topic offered appreciable tension and the charismatic, three-member cast projected the energy and skill to sustain interest.
Jory, played with unwavering righteous wrath by Champagne Hughes, is an art educator at a museum. On display is an Impressionist-style painting by the fictitious master artist Arthur Gelding, whose recently discovered diaries reveal him to be a serial pedophile. Jory’s boss and the museum’s curator, Biz, played by the consistently compelling Kimberly Ridgeway, refuses the educator’s insistence that she remove the painting. Biz asks most of the play’s questions; about where in the sand the line is drawn when it comes to cancelling culture. As a rare person of color in the curator position at a major arts institution — Biz quotes a 4-percent statistic — and cognizant of donors wishes, grants and funding for the museum, she pushes practicality into the face of Jory’s ethical tirade. Caught in the crosshairs of their argument is Dodge, played with light comedic nuance by Don Wood. He’s the museum’s everyday handyman, who appears at Rory’s calling to remove the painting but then is ordered by Biz not to proceed.
Soon enough, he’s drawn into the heat of the fiery debate and interjects comments. “The painting is innocent,” he declares, triggering cascading objections from Jory and emphatic nodding from Biz. Moral choices he says, are drawn in the sand not perfectly, but “the best we can.” FAnd following “the drumbeat of habit” instead of subjecting his every decision to a purist’s self-examination is where he lives most comfortably. When the threesome contemplate if a beautiful soul is necessary to create a beautiful thing, Dodge spotlighted the play’s most fascinating dichotomy while also citing Wikipedia to explain its title. In 1907, Dodge explains, the physician Duncan MacDougall concluded that the weight of a human soul was 21 grams — less than an ounce — by weighing six people immediately prior to and after their deaths. The widely criticized study was denounced, but the value of a person’s soul, removed of scientific measurements, lingers, unanswered.
It would ruin the play’s effectiveness to describe the argument’s resolution, or whether or not the painting remained on display or was removed. Most vital are the questions that burned after the play’s resolution. Having moved well past whether or not to remove a perfect painting created by a purported pedophile and invited to examine all of life’s incessant compromises, we were left, each on our own, to decide.
Parizeau packed her script with a dizzying number of geniuses who also were scoundrels. Inevitably, one felt that the only choice was to shout, “Everyone is scum, so what does it matter!” If visiting a museum; buying a meal; selecting a perfume; or owning a car, wristwatch, cell phone, or leather shoes — oh, the cows to worry about — is an unavoidable sin, well, let’s just sin and, along with the cleverly named Dodge, be comfortable. But of course, there may be a third solution. Finding the place along that line in the sand where a person can live is worth questioning. And then, with greater “wokeness” thanks to Central Works, we stumble and spin ourselves onward.
Through Mar. 15, $22-38, Central Works at Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Ave., Berkeley, 510-558-1381, CentralWorks.org