Anthony Clarvoe's 'People Where They Are'

written by Bill Kopp

There's a quote from 19th century philosopher Søren Kierkegaard that's cited in People Where They Are, a new play from Anthony Clarvoe. "One became great by expecting the possible, another by expecting the eternal. But he who expected the impossible became greater than all." The idea of six people -- each with often diametrically opposed values -- coming together and finding common cause is as unlikely as it is inspiring. But that's the idea at the core of Clarvoe's work, which premiered January 31 at San Jose Stage.

"It's a way of using the recent past to shed light on the present," says director Benny Soto Ambush. "I think that [audience members] may find themselves in one of the many points of view expressed in the play."

People Where They Are traces its origins to the Appalachia region of eastern Tennessee. The University of Tennessee's Clarence Brown Theatre in Knoxville sought a new, original work for its acting ensemble, so they approached Anthony Clarvoe. "They wanted to commission a play on a subject relating to their neighborhood," the playwright explains. "That was the only stipulation." Clarvoe began his research; soon learning about the Highlander Folk School, he was immediately captivated by its history and potential as the basis for a stage work.

Founded in the depression-era 1930s by a coterie of activists, educators and religious leaders, the Highlander Folk School was established in rural Tennessee's Grundy County near Chattanooga "to provide an educational center in the South for the training of rural and industrial leaders, and for the conservation and enrichment of the indigenous cultural values of the mountains." Meeting strident opposition from business leaders vehemently opposed to the idea of organized labor, the school nonetheless pursued its mission of training labor organizers.

As the Civil Rights era blossomed in the 1950s, the school shifted its emphasis, launching Black literacy programs and similar initiatives. In response, an official Commission on Education accused the school of being a communist operation; Tennessee revoked the school's charter in 1961. Undaunted, the school's leaders would re-establish the institution, eventually settling in tiny New Market, Tenn., 25 miles northwest of Knoxville.

Learning more about the school, Clarvoe was impressed by its role in labor organizing and civil rights. "I'm from a union family myself," he says, noting that the school's issues-oriented focus resonated deeply with him. Clarvoe's idea of a play built around dialogue among a disparate collection of characters -- all with a goal of achieving consensus -- had found a setting.

But developing such a play would require some serious legwork. "It meant I had to do a lot of research to do justice to all the voices and all the experiences," Clarvoe says. Meanwhile, both he and the theatre leaders wanted the work to speak to the current moment. "This was 2017," Clarvoe recalls. Locally, Confederate monuments were getting pulled down, but at the same time "white supremacist graffitii was going up. There was a lot of conflict."

Clarvoe began work on what would become People Where They Are. He recalls thinking, "If I could make a play that combined the voices and the issues from now with the experiences of generations that had come before, it might help lift younger people up. It might give them some tools and heroes that they may not have known about." Many of those heroes, he learned, came from the ranks of the Highlander Folk School. "They put in the work, raising up enormous numbers of volunteers and workers to build the groundswell of community support for change."

At the same time, violent opposition to the school's ongoing work would persist. On March 29, 2019, a fire of suspicious origin destroyed much of the facility as well as historic documents housed at the school. Days later, spray-painted fascist symbols were discovered nearby. The theatre organizers had discussions: was it even safe to go forward? A consensus quickly formed: This isn't just history; this is happening right now. Going ahead with Clarvoe's play was no longer simply an artistic endeavor; it became an act of resistance.

Clarvoe dug into the written and audio archive of oral histories at the school. "Most of the work," he says, "was about listening." He sought to capture the voices of the region: elders, founders, workers. And the play he developed synthesizes those inspirations into what Clarvoe calls "a crazy-quilt of incidents, stories and facts about people, aspects of their characters and their histories." The resulting play presents a diverse collection of six human beings -- two white, two Black, two Latino -- metaphorically "duking it out and trying to find their way to each other."

The meeting depicted in the play is set in the school's early days, a time when Grundy was a "sundown county," one in which Blacks were advised to vacate before dark. "This is a meeting that's illegal in its time and place because it is mixed," Clarvoe says. "So it's part of the fabric of the play that these characters are here under threat."

In modern times, the Highlander School had expanded its mission once again, taking on issues of LGBTQ justice along with continued work on its other core issues. "I didn't know any of that going in," Clarvoe admits. But that newfound knowledge presented additional opportunities for the playwright to infuse a full array of social justice concerns into his work. Without giving too much away, he says that "the play turns out to be a romance. There is a thread -- not only the romance of action and heroism for change -- but in the midst of struggle, there's also the romance of finding someone with whom you can share your life."

Clarvoe's work is ultimately an optimistic one, but he and his characters avoid easy answers. "The play has a hopeful outcome," he says, "but it's not pollyanna-ish about the challenges we still face. That would have been impossible, given when and where I was writing it." His characters do indeed find a way to connect, by focusing upon what they share in common. And director Ambush believes that the play's strength lies in that outcome. "If you have a destination or a vision of what can be, as impossible as it may seem, you have a chance at achieving it if you do the hard work," he says.

With a West Coast premiere during an election season that highlights the deep divisions in American society, People Where They Are is as timely as it is timeless.

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