Many theatrical productions highlight important times in history and connect them to today’s world. That’s what the Clarence Brown Theatre aims to do with its upcoming production, People Where They Are, running October 2–20 in the Ula Love Doughty Carousel Theatre.
The newly commissioned play is inspired by true events during the civil rights movement. It centers around the Highlander Research and Education Center, an East Tennessee training ground for social activists including Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., and John Lewis. Highlander offered training sessions that helped lay the groundwork for many of the movement’s most important initiatives, including the Montgomery bus boycott, Citizenship Schools, and the founding of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. The education center was located in Knoxville from 1961 to 1971 before moving to its current location near New Market, Tennessee.
“This new play dramatizes Highlander’s expansion into the civil rights movement. But it also takes aim at our own time, by dramatizing our own ongoing discussion about race, otherness, and the eruption of violence our nation has endured since even before we began this particular artistic journey,” said Calvin MacLean, head of UT’s Department of Theatre and producing artistic director for the CBT.
The production is an opportunity for the theater to both tell a meaningful story and provide a space for people can share in an open discussion. Its themes are closely tied to UT’s 225th anniversary, which honors the university’s long history of making an impact in Tennessee.
“The 225th anniversary is a celebration of teaching people how to solve, collaborate, and think critically, which is what Highlander tries to do within a certain context,” MacLean explained. “It’s exciting to be a part of the mission of the university by opening up and highlighting another educational organization.”
Playwright Anthony Clarvoe was commissioned by MacLean to write the play specifically for current Master of Fine Arts students in the department. The work began in December 2017, when the Highlander Center was still largely unknown to the actors.
“The playwright wrote and tailored the characters to fit the voices of the actors in the play,” MacLean explained. “That’s an exciting process to be a part of and a great training for our students.”
According to Clarvoe, the play is based on true events and real people.
Aleah Vassell, an MFA in acting candidate from Toronto, plays Mrs. Clark in the production. The character is based on Septima Clark, a civil rights activist who was important in the drive for voting rights and civil rights for African Americans.
“Few actors get the opportunity to work directly with the playwright,” Vassell said. “It’s been a very collaborative experience.”
People Where They Are showcases characters with strong opinions who are able to listen and grow from other’s opinions. Vassell hopes the audience learns how to express their concerns for today’s world, like race and violence, while still listening and learning from others.
“We want this to inspire a dialogue,” Vassell said.
UT’s MFA acting program was recently ranked 11th in the United States and United Kingdom, in part for the opportunity it provides students to perform in professional productions at the CBT.
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