If we have learned anything from generations of folklore and storytelling, it is this: just don’t make a deal with the devil. It’s not going to end well. Some charming supernatural stranger waltzes by when you are at your lowest, casually promising riches and glory and happiness in exchange for the smallest of favors or prices? Say no, friends.
This is a lesson that the man at the center of Donnetta Lavinia Grays’s monologue play, Where We Stand, never bothered to learn. Bent and broken in body and spirit, shunned and disrespected by his neighbors in a rundown small town, he jumps at the opportunity for personal and community betterment. In an instant he rises from his lows, and dispenses untold prosperity among his community. I bet you can figure out the rest of the story.
Indeed, there is not much in terms of plot that is particularly unique about Where We Stand: it is a new and creative version of an old tale, but an old tale nonetheless. Still, a vibrant and engaging production of the play at Women’s Project Theater under the direction of Tamilla Woodard foregrounds what remains relevant and engaging about this story. And a dynamic performance by Lavinia Grays herself helps elevate the personal out of the familiar, accentuating the humanity that lies at the core of all great legends.
The play bills itself as a town meeting: simple signs with hand drawn arrows saying “Town Meeting This Way” point audience members up the stairs from WP Theater’s lobby to its performance space, where spectators are encouraged to have a cup of coffee and doughnut before the show and chat, as we might make small talk before any community meeting in any given town. The conceit is that the unnamed man at the center of the play has brought terrible hardship on the town with his reckless actions, and is coming before them to plead his case. The stage is mostly unadorned and house lights remain on during the entire 90-minute show: the whole affair has the feeling of a public meeting in a middle school gymnasium.
But Lavinia Grays (who is rotating performances with David Ryan Smith) will soon and consistently elevate the proceedings. She opens the show by leading the audience in a spiritual tune of hope, and over the course of the monologue she will by turns sing, weave her story into lyrical poetry, impersonate various townspeople, and constantly engage the audience. She spends as much time in the theater’s aisle and on the floor in front of the stage as she does on stage. This character wants nothing more than to convince his community to offer him their compassion, and Lavinia Grays embodies fully and convincingly the goodwill and vulnerability that defines his presentation.
The playwright has also given herself a rhythmic, playful, and inventive script with which to work. The modulation of mood and expression all seem organic—the man does not sing because he randomly decides to break out into song; he sings because the moment demands such expression—as this character shows the many sides of himself that his neighbors had ignored for years. In allowing the man to tell his story, Lavinia Grays’s script paints a nuanced portrait of a lonely and weary man laying himself bare before his neighbors.
His neighbors overlook and take this man for granted in the same way that we may overlook and take for granted the familiar operation of age-old legends. Where We Stand asks us to look more closely, and to consider the complexity of the people and stories that live with us every day.