Front Row Reviews

“People Where They Are” Dissolves the “Us and Them” Paradigm


Anthony Clarvoe’s powerful play at The Stage in San Jose reflects the contemporary landscape of racial and socio-economic conflicts, gun violence, and the spreading of white supremacy. But the time of the play is the 1950’s, and the place is the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee.

The school became famous for its integrated workshops during a time when integration was prohibited by law. They invite protestors and emerging leaders, like Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. However, attending these meetings was extremely dangerous. Labeled as Communists, the school constantly lived under the shadow of shutdowns and unwarranted attacks from outside forces.

“People Where They Are” takes us to the raw essence of human conflict, spotlighting harmful prejudicial barriers we erect against those who have caused us pain. Through the psychological lens of the Highlander Folk School, both the audience and the students discover effective ways to calm a tinderbox of emotions.

Six antique wooden chairs encircle the stage, symbolizing the meeting room at the school. Flanking them are large wooden bookcases filled with weathered leather-bound books, positioned beside a towering A-Frame window. Maurice Vercoutere’s lighting design casts shifting scenes from morning to vibrant dusk outside the window, evoking the passage of time. Set designer Giulio Cesare Perrone’s minimalist approach to the meeting room and bookcases creates a sense of scholarly significance and tension, heightened by the chairs’ proximity to each other.

 As the workshop begins, we meet the key figures. Cathleen Riddley embodies the wise Mrs. Clark, echoing the spirit of Mrs. Septima Clark, renowned for empowering Black children through teaching them to read the constitution and learn writing to cast future votes.  Brady Morales-Woolery skillfully portrays the warm folk singer, Mr. Carawan, channeling the essence of the legendary songwriter behind “We Shall Overcome.” Morales-Woolery adeptly transitions between gentle melodies and commanding directives if captured, embodying the range of his character.

Estrella Esparza-Johnson, Michael Champlin, Brady Morales-Woolery, Jordan Covington, Rebecca Pingree, Cathleen Riddley

Ned, a white official of the CIO and supporter of the Highlander, encounters the skeptical Black college graduate, John, portrayed by cunning Jordan Covington. Their interaction sparks racial conflicts. Yet Michael Champlin, as Ned, delivers a brilliant speech referencing white people stating: “when will the white man ever be free?”

Bilingual Estrella Esparza-Johnson brings Texas Emma to life with determination and strength, emerging as a powerful voice. She led 10,000 women in a strike against exploitative working conditions. Lastly, we meet passionate, earthy May, a white Kentuckian hillbilly. Rebecca Pingree portrays May with the raw simple understanding of her kin. Her performance is stellar as a fighter against corporate greed in a town plagued by children starving to death.

The interracial and culturally diverse group not only shares in song, dance, and communal meals, but also confronts their own harrowing experiences with oppressive governing bodies. Through immersive role-playing exercises and introspection, they embark on a journey to address their own prejudices.

Throughout this process, they glean invaluable insights into effective communication and the power of collective action. They embrace the principles of empathy and understanding, starting from where each individual stands, devoid of assumptions, and truly listening to one another’s stories. They become “we the people.”


Then the school is attacked.

Benny Sato Ambush incisively brings out the depth of each character as well as the pacing of the dialogue and action. “People Where They Are’’ is captivating! It is not just a play; it is a call to action. Its lessons resonate across time and place, reminding us to confront our own biases and work towards a more compassionate, equitable solidarity.

A must see!

“People Where They Are” written by Anthony Clarvoe, directed by Benny Sato Ambush, Sound Designer, Steve Schoenbeck, Costume Designer, Bethany Deal, Dialect Coach, Kimberley Mohne Hill at The Stage in San Jose, California to February 25, 2024

cast: Michael Champlin, Jordan Covington, Estrella Esparza-Johnson, Rebecca Pringree, Cathleen Riddley, Brady Morales-Woolery