Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
People Where They Are
Also see Eddie's review of Misery
After all, it is 1955 in Monteagle, Tennessee, in a sundown county where by law and practice Blacks are not to let the sun set with them still within county lines. ("Here they lynch to keep people out.") Why then is the twenty-year-old Highlander Folk School located there, an institute that has always had integrated, residential workshops for people organizing labor and social rights groups? "If you want to change people, you have to start where people are," Mrs. Clark explains.
San Jose Stage Company is presenting the West Coast premiere of Anthony Clarvoe's People Where They Are–an eye-opening, electrifying course in the real history of the school that taught the likes of Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and John Lewis how to stand up (and often sit down) in non-violent protests even when threatened by "badges," "hoods," and/or "gasoline and torches." With a jaw-droppingly stellar cast and Benny Sato Ambush's inspired and bold directorial decisions, People Where They Are is a must-attend, must-experience class where the lessons to be learned are as important–if not more so–in today's America than they were in those early years of the Civil Rights Movement.
That the different races are supposed to sit, eat, and even share sleeping rooms together and that the teacher of this class is herself a Black woman are just the beginning surprises for John (Black), Ned (white), May (white), and Emma (Mexican American). They soon learn that "we'll be mostly teaching each other" because "if each of you knew what all of you know," then everyone would be more prepared for the future crusades for social change.
That there are only four people is because "not everyone who sets out arrives here safely." Into such a setting, where a police car has been parked out front to see who is arriving, these four along with Mrs. Clark and her assistant, Mr. Carawan, begin as all Highlander sessions begin, singing–in this case the Negro spiritual that each of the very different people finds has been common to their individual histories of protests and strikes, "We Shall Not Be Moved."
Cathleen Riddley is arrestingly stunning as Mrs. Clark, the session's leader and a former elementary school teacher in South Carolina who was fired for teaching her Black students how to read the state constitution. Mrs. Clark exudes a quiet, calm strength that is palpable as she states simple-sounding statements that are power-packed principles able to guide entire movements. ("Sometimes you have to hear someone else's story to understand your own." "If we fail, we fail [but] we do it for them, for your children.") When accused by one attendee of having communist leanings because she is a member of the NAACP, she unabashedly states in no uncertain terms, "We [the NAACP] don't want communism; we want something more radical ... democracy."
Her "students" include Ned (Michael Champlin), a white official from the CIO, a federation of union organization that has long supported money and attendees in Highlander and whose reason for coming becomes increasingly suspicious. From Atlanta, Ned is visibly uncomfortable and edgy around the non-whites, especially John, and seems more interested in finding some Tennessee moonshine than in what he might learn.
John (Terrance Austin Smith) too is highly skeptical at first of the worth of these sessions but does find himself totally engaged and even learning when he practices trying to get an elderly, Black woman (a hilarious but wise one–a role played by Mrs. Clark) to register to vote in a scene packed with both humor and wisdom.
From Texas comes Emma (Estrella Esparza-Johnson), a Mexican American who admits, "I have been arrested a lot just for being me." That she once led 10,000 women in San Antonio to stop shelling pecans for a few cents a day and to go on strike for weeks is just one reason she is banned from Texas and is a CIO legend that even Ned knows by reputation.
Equally powerful in her background and her presence is a twang-speaking, take-no-crap-from-anyone May (Rebecca Pingree) from Kentucky's Harlan County–another union organizer who stood up to a company-owned town where workers' kids sometimes starved to death.
Emma and May are proof of Mrs. Clark's upfront revelation that the real teachers at Highlander are the students themselves. Each has her own hard-earned set of truths she passes on to the others like "We are sometimes smarter than everyone tells us we are" (May) and "Sometimes [to cause change] you have to make a spectacle of yourself" (Emma).
Each of these four actors is singularly spectacular in their depictions of four very different backgrounds, philosophies, prejudices, and motives for being at Highlander. Each has more than one moment in the evening's spotlight that is breathtaking, often revealing personal flaws that make those among them who are heroes, even more so. Each reveals a part of self that is unexpected and surprising–sometimes delightful, sometimes disturbing, and in one case, damning. Each represents an amalgam of several historical figures who attended this school that to this day still exists to create for LGBTQ, Black Lives Matter, and immigration rights social justice warriors.
Rounding out the cast is equally impressive Brady Morales-Woolery as the young, soft-spoken teaching assistant, Mr. Carawan. When a fun evening of square dancing is suddenly interrupted by events that are shocking and terrifying for us to behold, Mr. Carawan teaches the others many of the same rules for survival that John Lewis discusses in his memoir, "Walking with the Wind" that he learned at Highlander. He calmly instructs the others a series of do's and don'ts that generations of freedom fighters will live by in the years and decades to follow. [When they are] "cursing at you, spitting on you, pushing lit cigarettes into your neck," you can find a way "to take a beating and survive" ... "You will be nonviolent."
In a climactic sequence of events that feels real, scary, and too much like headlines we too often still read in 2024, playwright, director, and actors masterfully teach us that the struggle continues and we all have the opportunity–and maybe even the obligation–to be a new set of warriors to carry on the fight for justice for all. To reiterate an earlier point, San Jose Stage Company's People Where They Are is must-see, must-do-now.
People Where They Are runs through February 25, 2024, at San Jose Stage Company, 490 South 1st Street, San Jose CA. For tickets and information, please visit www.thestage.org or by email at email@example.com.