“People Where They Are” is a very good play, set to end Sunday, Oct. 20, at the Clarence Brown Theatre. CBT commissioned Anthony Clarvoe to write the drama, based on the history of the Highlander Center in New Market, Tenn.
Six fine arts graduate students bring balanced performances in roles designed just for them. While all the events depicted actually happened, the playwright telescoped them for dramatic effect.
There is humor, anger, angst and a spark of romance among the performers, led by Aleah Vassell, whose role is based on the folk center’s educational director, Mrs. Septima Clark. Highlander founder Myles Horton is mentioned but never seen.
It’s the mid-1950s in rural Monteagle, Tenn. On a stark, round stage you will meet the protagonists:
Collin Andrews (Ned), represents an Atlanta-based union group which funds the center. But Highlander is transitioning from union organizing to civil rights – a more politically volatile endeavor. Personally, Ned worries about “the others” standing in his place, taking what should be his. “We have less power than them,” he says. “We did have more and things were great.”
Aleah Vassell (Mrs. Clark) is a teacher who was run out of South Carolina when the school board discovered she had joined a “subversive group,” the NAACP. She gently guides learning by explaining, “If you want to make change, you have to start with people where they are.”
Brittany Marie Pirozzoli (May) had to stretch to play a “white trash” textile union organizer from Kentucky. Past credits include Shakespeare in her hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. But here she’s a woman who has lost her kids to family members who think she’s crazy. She’s been shot in the leg while leading a picket line. And she’s not quite sure what comes next.
Jade Arnold (John) is a suit-and-tie-wearing son of a big-city preacher who says he’s never picked cotton. He’s proud of his degree from Morehouse College and is totally out of place in this rustic retreat, threatened from within by Ned and from without by roving rednecks who might just lynch him.
Owen Squire Smith (Mr. Carawan) is native – a guitar-playing good ol’ boy who serves tea when necessary. He and Mrs. Clark are the calm center around which the others swirl. Folk musicians Guy and Candie Carawan, along with Pete Seeger, are integral to Highlander’s history.
Brenda Orellana (Emma) of ambiguous Tex-Mex origins, with ambiguous political leanings – maybe she really is a communist – speaks for immigrants while feistily explaining that her people actually were in Texas first. About the only thing she’s straight on is her attraction to May.
Highlander Center has been around since 1932, moving from Monteagle to Knoxville to New Market. Wherever it’s been, locals have been suspicious, yet it has endured. In March 2019, while this play was being written, white supremacists claimed credit for a fire that destroyed a main building at Highlander.
A free concert and benefit for Highlander will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 19, in the lobby of Clarence Brown Theatre. Performing will be Michael and Carrie Kline. He was the Highlander staff musician in 1968-69. Both have studied Appalachian music for 40 years. The concert is open to the public. A collection will be taken.
Sandra Clark is editor/CEO of Knox TN Today. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org