San Jose Stage presents a play for a divided America, then and now

San Jose Stage presents a play for a divided America, then and now

It’s a deeply divided America full of siloed communities that consider each other the real problem.

That sentence could describe the United States today, but in “People Where They Are,” Anthony Clarvoe’s play making its West Coast premiere at San Jose Stage Company, it’s still-segregated Tennessee in 1955.

When Clarvoe wrote “People Where They Are,” it was for more or less the same community where the play takes place.

“A professional theater in Appalachia, the Clarence Brown Theatre in Knoxville, Tennessee, was run at the time by a wonderful man named Cal McLean, who had directed a production of my play ‘The Living’ in Chicago,” says Clarvoe, a San Francisco native who now lives in Berkeley after some years away. “He asked if I would be interested in writing a play commissioned by them. And the only stipulations were it needed to be written for their young ensemble and be about something in their neighborhood.”

That led Clarvoe to the story of Tennessee’s Highlander Folk School, now the Highlander Research and Education Center.

“This is a school that was founded in 1932 to help people learn how to organize in their communities in coal country and elsewhere in the south,” Clarvoe says. “They evolved in the ’50s to be one of the major sites for training people in civil rights work and nonviolent assistance, and have continued to evolve. This is the place where Rosa Parks got her training in nonviolent resistance.”

The play brings a mixed and wary group of union organizers and civil rights activists into the same room in the still very segregated South of the 1950s, sharing their respective stories and methods of agitating for change.

“This was a perfect story in a perfect setting for a very diverse young ensemble of artists in the midst of a very white area, right after the 2016 election,” Clarvoe says. “You literally had, in the same community, Confederate statues being pulled down and white supremacist graffiti going up.”

As if to highlight the renewed relevance of the story, Highlander was firebombed in 2019, while Clarvoe and company were working on the play.

“While we were workshopping it, we had been to Highlander,” Clarvoe says. “They were very generous, invited us to come in, took us through an abbreviated version of their process. And then just a few weeks later, they were firebombed overnight, and one of the buildings burned down. Fortunately, there were no injuries. Right-wing white supremacists claimed credit. The Tennessee State Police, as this happened numerous times in the life of Highlander, never apprehended anyone.”

The original production of the play then became a benefit for Highlander and its rebuilding.

San Jose Stage’s West Coast premiere is directed by Benny Sato Ambush, in his first Bay Area production since he left the region in 1998. Currently artistic director of Florida’s Venice Theatre, Ambush was producing director of Oakland Ensemble Theatre in the 1980s and later served as associate artistic director at American Conservatory Theater and co-artistic director of the Bay Area Playwrights Festival.

“It is an honor and a gift to direct a play with such potent relevance to the current pulse of our time,” Ambush writes in an email. “More significantly and personally, this project brought me back to the Bay Area, my former artistic home of 16 years. It has been a meaningful full circle journey.”

In 2020 Ambush directed an online production of “The Living,” Clarvoe’s play about the Great Plague of London in 1665, and he had earlier directed Clarvoe’s romantic comedy “Let’s Play Two.” In 1995 San Jose Stage had done the West Coast premiere of “The Living,” and a couple years later it produced “Show and Tell,” his play about a tragic classroom explosion.

“When the Stage approached me about doing this production, I actually had the unusual opportunity as a playwright to say, Ooh, can I have some input on who directs?” Clarvoe says. “And they were great. They brought Benny all the way across the country, back to the Bay Area to make this happen. He’s such an inspiring leader and creates such a beautiful room and is so aware of the political importance of theater as a public event.”

Five years after Clarvoe wrote it, this play hasn’t lost any of its timeliness. Far from it.

“It is increasingly difficult to get people in one place talking who have not already made up their minds because they are tight in their own bubbles,” he says. “And Highlander has been one of those places where people have to get out of their bubbles. Sometimes it’s about making alliance with some other obvious alliable community, but a lot of times it is with people who have been raised up to see each other as natural enemies. To have to listen to each other as they explore their perceived crimes and slights and conflicts, and to discover the very difficult and dangerous common ground that lies between—that seems incredibly important to happen right now.”

Contact Sam Hurwitt at [email protected], and follow him at


By Anthony Clarvoe, presented by San Jose Stage Company

Through: Feb. 25

Where: San Jose Stage, 490 S. 1st St., San Jose

Tickets: $34-$74;