Can a white supremacist and a civil rights activist become allies? The events in The Best of Enemies seem unbelievable– even for a work of fiction. But, in reality this story’s two enemies really did become friends.
Based on a true events documented in the book The Best of Enemies by Osha Gray Davidson, Mark St. Germain’s play of the same name tells the story two unlikely partners. C.P. Ellis, an exalted cyclops leader of the KKK, and Ann Atwater, a civil rights activist, overcome their differences and work together to move the community forward during Durham’s tenuous school desegregation in the early 1970’s.
Bruce Evers presents a formidable presence as C.P. Ellis. A booming voice spouting vitriol and an intimidating persona, he owns the stage and truly becomes the character. From the beginning when he praises the murder of Martin Luther King to the end where is a humbled, broken man, he is captivating. But, he has an equally opposing and more likeable rival in Elisabeth Omilami’s Ann Atwater. Funny when she needs to be and fierce at the right moments, she lives up to the billing of the character.
Mark St. Germain’s text is poignant and avoids the trappings of becoming preachy or trite. The two main characters could have easily become stereotypical caricatures, but he gives each one a flawed sense of pride that humanizes them. Even with such well written characters, the supporting characters leave you wanting more.
Lala Cochran gives a remarkably understated performance as Mary Ellis, the suffering housewife, but the limited role doesn’t allow her to show much of the character, forcing her to the background for the most part. The same could be said of Enoch King’s Bill Riddick. He does well with what the script allows, but the character is not much more than a simple plot device used to tell the story.
In addition, Germain’s script dances around from scene to scene quickly, causing it to feel disjointed. (Perhaps an hour and a half is too short of a time to tell this story.) The sudden shifts detract from the overall impact that the play could have had.
Overall, the play tackles an important issue on race, and it forces the audience to think about it. If this KKK leader can change his attitude and become friends with an arch enemy, could we as a society also find a way to reconcile our differences and work together for better solutions?
The message of the play is a timely thought that transcends the racial divide and takes on contemporary relevance. Take out race and place in gay marriage or immigration reform and the themes of respect, tolerance and reconciliation have just as much of an impact. Furthermore, the idea of class and the struggles of the poor and working class are forced in front of the audience, suggesting that both races in the lower class are just as disadvantaged and looked down upon by the wealthy.
The Best of Enemies, directed by Mira Hirsch, plays at Theatrical Outfit through February 16, 2014. For tickets or more information, please visit the theater’s website. The show’s runtime is about 90 minutes with no intermission.
– Kenny Norton