New CBT play shares impact of Highlander Center

Robin Ann ConklinArts 865

The legendary Highlander Center, which has trained leaders of social movements since 1932 and was based for a decade in Knoxville, is the focus of a new play commissioned by the Clarence Brown Theatre set to debut next month.


The world premiere of “People Where They Are” will be performed Oct. 2-20 in the CBT’s Carousel Theatre on the University of Tennessee campus. Written specifically for the current UT Theatre MFA actors by Anthony Clarvoe and directed by Calvin MacLean, the play dramatizes the Highlander Center’s expansion into the civil rights movement, and more.

Several ancillary events will take place in conjunction with this production, and the first is happening this weekend. A free reading of Clarvoe’s award-winning play “The Living” will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 21, in the Lab Theatre, with a talkback immediately following the reading. (The two-act play, set in 1665 London as the bubonic plague inspires terror and bravery, draws analogies to the early years of the AIDS crisis in the 20th century.)

In 1932, Myles Horton, Don West, Jim Dombrowski and others founded the Highlander Folk School near Monteagle, Tenn. They focused first on organizing unemployed and working people, and by the late 1930s Highlander was serving as the de-facto CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations, later to merge with the AFL) education center for the region, training union organizers and leaders in 11 Southern states. During this period, Highlander also fought segregation in the labor movement, holding its first integrated workshop in 1944.

Highlander’s commitment to ending segregation made it a critically important incubator of the civil rights movement. Workshops and training sessions at Highlander helped lay the groundwork for many of the movement’s most important initiatives, including the Montgomery bus boycott, the Citizenship Schools and the founding of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. In 1961, after years of red-baiting and several government investigations, the state of Tennessee revoked Highlander’s charter and seized its land and buildings. The school reopened the next day as the Highlander Research and Education Center. From 1961 to 1971, it was based in Knoxville, and in 1972 it moved to its current location near New Market, Tenn.

According to Clarvoe, all the actions depicted in the play actually happened and all the characters are based on actual people. But the timeline of events has been rearranged and telescoped and the named characters are amalgams of several different historical figures.

MacLean said that when he and the cast began work with the playwright in December 2017, the work of Highlander was largely unknown to them. Clarvoe brought to their attention the historical significance of Highlander and the ironies of its placement in rural East Tennessee. They had no idea that, while working on the play, the eruptions of violence would increase and even visit upon the Highlander Center in New Market.

“This new play dramatizes Highlander’s expansion into the civil rights movement,” MacLean said. “But it also takes aim at our own time, by dramatizing our own ongoing discussions about race, ‘otherness’ and the eruption of violence our nation has endured since even before we began this particular artistic journey.”

The UT Theatre MFA actors performing in the play are Aleah Vassell (Mrs. Clark); Owen Squire Smith (Mr. Carawan); Brittany Marie Pirozzoli (May); Brenda Orellana (Emma); Collin Andrews (Ned); and Jade Arnold (John).

MacLean is in his 14th year as Theatre Department head and CBT Company producing artistic director. He was the artistic director of the Illinois Shakespeare Festival for 11 seasons. Professionally active in Chicago, his productions – mostly at the Famous Door Theatre – earned several Joseph Jefferson Awards for Outstanding Production and Direction. He directed Anthony Clarvoe’s “The Living,” which won Jeff Awards for Outstanding Direction of a Play and Outstanding Production.

Playwright Clarvoe has received numerous awards, fellowships and commissions. He lectures on theater history at the University of California at Berkeley and leads playwriting classes in Oakland. A native San Franciscan and longtime resident of New York and the Midwest, he lives with his family in Berkeley.

Following each “People Where They Are” performance, patrons will have the opportunity to make voluntary donations to support the Highlander Center. The Pay What You Can performance is at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 2. Half of the proceeds from the PWYC tickets sales will benefit the Highlander also.

Behind the Scenes Sunday is Oct. 6, following the 2 p.m. matinee. It will include a panel discussion with the playwright, director and co-director Dee Dee Batteast, who will discuss what it takes to create a new play and will delve into the themes of social activism present in the production. An Actor Talkback will take place on Sunday, Oct. 13, following the matinee performance.

A Highlander Benefit Concert will take place at 2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 19, featuring inspirational folk music by Michael and Carrie Kline. Michael served as a staff musician for the Highlander (1968-1969), and they both have been studying Appalachian community culture and history for more than 40 years. The concert is free and open to the public with another opportunity to donate to the Highlander Center.

A Sunday Symposium with Wess Harris will take place on Oct. 20 following the 2 p.m. matinee performance. A sociologist and former coal miner and union organizer from West Virginia, Harris will recount his experiences with one of the co-founders of the Highlander, Don West. He also will shed light on his journey of collecting portraits created by another co-founder of the Highlander, Connie West, which were done to depict influential individuals of the Highlander. Select portraits, which echo the themes and characters present in our production, will be on display in the lobby of the theater.

Harris also will be on hand Oct. 9-20 to talk about the portraits and to sell his books, “Written in Blood: Courage and Corruption in the Appalachian War of Extraction” and “When Miners March.”

For tickets to “People Where They Are,” call the Clarence Brown Theatre box office at 865-974-5161 or order online. Support for this production is provided by Townes Lavidge Osborn and Jennifer Banner.

Robin Conklin is marketing and communications director for the Clarence Brown Theatre.

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