I’m used to going to the fourth floor of the WP Theater, but it’s currently blocked off by a sign saying, “Closed for town meeting.” That struck me as odd until I walked into the third-floor theater instead, realizing that the “town meeting” was in fact “Where We Stand,” and I was part of it. The bare quality of the stage, populated only with some chairs and a refreshment table, reminded me of the many nondescript meeting halls from which I reported on board meetings in my own small hometown one summer. Besides the stark scenery, though, the room was welcoming. People mingled and moved freely throughout the house and onstage before the show — a diverse audience in race and age, together with the intimate nature of the theater making it truly feel like a meeting of neighbors in a close-knit town. It’s almost so friendly, it seems impossible that we, as neighbors, would be bad ones. That in the parable of the Good Samaritan, for example, we would be the unfeeling priest and judge that turn away from a sufferer in their time of need.
But that’s for us to decide.
In the meantime, a lone hum arises from the house. Thus begins the 90-minute story recounted by a character known only as the Man, played at my performance by playwright and composer Donnetta Lavinia Grays (David Ryan Smith alternates with Grays in the role). Her comfortability in her words, immediately apparent and unwavering, is evenly matched with charisma, boundless joy and a sense of gratefulness toward every gesture she makes. She seamlessly moves between speech and song to tell the story of a man who sells the soul of a town that shunned him in exchange for glory. He attains it by helping to build up that town, creating a fraught situation when the devil returns to renege on the deal.
Grays embodies the meek man, the charming devil and several other one-off personas of different types of townspeople giving testimonies, the archetypes of whom you might recognize from your own block, or perhaps a sitcom. But as I alluded to, it’s not truly a one-person show. Grays is among the audience as much as she is speaking to us from the stage, but the relationship between her and us — or at least, between her and me — feels personal regardless. She placed a hand on my wrist and looked warmly into my eyes as she passed me in the aisle, and I felt like a friend. Minutes later, she made me the teacher in her narrative who simply drove by when she needed help, afraid to be late for school, and I felt like a foe. Guilty, almost. This show displays a consistent knack for that: reminding people that they’re connected, for better or for worse. That even by dismissing someone, you’ve established some sort of dynamic between you.
This can be attributed to Grays in both her writing and performance. Regardless of, well, where we as “townspeople” stand in our treatment of her, she welcomes us into her world with open arms. She turns her single hum at the beginning into a steady din throughout the room as she invites more people to join. Once we do, the connection becomes easy. Soon enough, she’s standing on a box and leading us as we chant, “Do you wanna be free? “Yeah, yeah!” complete with claps like a gospel choir. Even when Grays merely speaks, her dialogue is rhythmic and often in rhyme. Her ability to create a landscape with words — much like her character magically builds up his town using an unseen golden spade — is excellent.
It’s also what’s so tough about “Where We Stand.” Grays creates a world that’s hard to let go, but eventually we’re forced to choose between keeping that beautiful new town her character’s made, and allowing him to stay with us in it but watching it crumble. It seems as though the decision should be easy — it seems as though betraying Grays at this point would be like betraying a friend. But if we weren’t to walk out of the theater immediately afterward with no real consequences or threat to our happy, comfortable lives, I’m not sure the decision would be so easy.
I won’t divulge how I voted. Grays’ declaration, “Kings and fools are befriended on purpose,” is ringing in my head all the same.