A green turnpike sign that leans against the brick back wall of the stage reads “Welcome to Maine, The Way Life Should Be.” Another directs us to Forest Avenue. And downstage are unlit piles of Pandora LaCasse’s signature holiday lights.
Where we are is familiar: the setting of Portland Stage Company’s new production, “Where We Stand,” is right here in Portland. But one lonely and overlooked Man among us (Tracey Conyer Lee) has just made a bad deal with a Stranger in a gold suit, a smooth-talking somebody who has promised “ease,” “prosperity,” and “profit.”
And this too-good-to-be-true pact affects all of us.
How and why the Man did what he did, what it means, and what should happen now are the very beguiling story he unfolds in this one-woman show, a rich and rhythmic parable in song and verse written by Donnetta Lavinia Grays.
Deftly directed by Kevin R. Free, and featuring a sublime solo performance by Lee as the Man, “Where We Stand” runs onstage through June 6 and streams online from June 2-20. It’s a scintillating production that asks us to think consciously about community, a perfect show for our moment.
When we first meet the Man – “a Used to Be who realizes he Still Could Be,” as the program notes describe him – he’s moving slowly, stooping a little as he unpacks the lights, and occasionally looking up at us with pleading eyes. He hums to himself as he works, a blues-and-gospel inflected tune, and finally, he turns his song to us.
It’s us he’s speaking to, directly, seeking understanding and forgiveness. “Keep your stones and hear me out,” he begs. And so begins his entreaty of a tale, with Lee enacting not just the Man but an array of townspeople, plus the slippery, gold-suited Stranger – whose true identity you have perhaps already guessed.
The story is modern but archetypal, and Grays embraces classical essentials of myth and storytelling while putting her own stylistic spin on it all. Along with the timeless Faustian conflict, the play includes primeval story elements like seeds, scythes, and spades. The show’s imagery, rhymes, and frequent shifts into song recall classical and Shakespearean motifs, and into these Grays (who, like Lee, is Black) infuses the sounds of gospel, jazz, blues, and spoken word.
The verse of “Where We Stand” reminds us of the original, ancient reason for verse plays – not to be academic or inaccessible, but in fact to draw us in, delight our senses, enhance our memory of what we hear, and rouse our imagination and empathy for the characters we watch.
And Lee’s performance of all of this richness is a masterwork of storytelling. She last appeared at PSC in 2017 as an aging, damaged Billie Holiday, singing gorgeously and conveying in her face and voice the slightest ebbs and flows of the great singer’s mood.
Here, too, Lee soars in her physical and musical performance. Singing the blues about the Man’s meager harvest, Lee mimes digging in the earth with rhythmic stomps and the jingling of bracelets; she drums on a ladder with her ringed fingers. And she modulates her face, body, and voice with breathtaking skill and speed as she slips between the Man’s shifting remorse, joy, and hope, or between a range of wonderfully specific townspeople.
Especially thrilling is Lee’s bravura pacing of the interplay between the loose-bodied, casual-talking Man and the meticulous Stranger with his elegant posturing and intimidating enunciation. “A solid alliance, me and you,” the Stranger says, pronouncing the words as if every single syllable is a special kind of decadence in his mouth.
And all the while, Lee is always still portraying the Man – this well-intentioned person caught up completely in the story and its stakes, who wants so profoundly for us to hear, understand and even love him.
In “Where We Stand,” the house lights never go dark over us, and so we as an audience never dissolve into the dark. Instead, we remain present and active as listeners and witnesses in a work of theater that is intentionally non-hierarchical and accessible (pre-pandemic, Grays intended the play to tour places like prisons, schools, and women’s shelters). A lit-up house would be a distinctive artistic choice at any time, but it is especially poignant now, as we start to come together again, and as we grapple with how very much there is to reckon with.
The ending of “Where We Stand” is abrupt, and thematically the play stands as sustained inquiry, and as a Rorschach for the inequities and bad deals of where we stand. As Grays asks us in a PSC interview: “What is your gold referencing? Who have you left on the outskirts of town?”
Here in Maine, we might think of literal deals, long ago reneged upon, with Indigenous people for their land, old and ongoing deals made to establish or sustain white patriarchy. In Portland specifically, we might think of a deal made for the gold of out-of-state wealth and shiny brand-name boutiques; we might think of our neighbors who struggle with substance-use disorders, who are not safe because of their race or gender, or who are unhoused and living in tents regularly razed by the city.
What lingers most powerfully from “Where I Stand” is the Man’s yearning to belong, to be useful, known, and cared for – to be a part of a truly beloved community. “Where I Stand” reminds us that we have a choice of what kind of community we want and that there are so many more of us we can include.
Megan Grumbling is a writer, editor, and teacher who lives in Portland. Find her at megangrumbling.com.
• A world premiere evening of plays by a Maine playwright soon takes to the screen: Freeport Players presents “Future … Present … Past: Three Short Comedies by Elizabeth Guffey.” The three plays include “Alien Autopsy,” about siblings and a science fair; “I Love You,” about emotional times at the DMV, and “My Wife Thinks You’re Dead,” about teenage passion revisited. Streaming May 28-June 30. Visit www.fcponline.org.
• How dreamy to return to summer movies in Congress Square Park, and I’m especially keen to see the film that screens on Sunday, June 6: Lisa Rovner’s documentary “Sisters with Transistors,” narrated by Laurie Anderson, celebrating the work of female trailblazers of electronic music. It screens in the park at Congress and High streets on June 6, at 8:30 p.m. Visit https://bit.ly/3fJqumo.
• And just ahead on the horizon is something happy, weird, and wonderful: The return of PortFringe, which turns 10 this year. On account of COVID-19, the boundary-pushing festival, which runs June 11-19, will happen as “21 fringe-on-film events,” live-streamed and then accessible asynchronously through June. There are some wildly creative minds at work behind this fest, so expect its 2021 adaptations to be ingenious, community-centered, and fun. Learn more at http://portfringe.com/, and look for a preview in this column.
— Megan Grumbling