In “Best of Enemies” by Mark St. Germain we are introduced to a story of institutionalized racism in Durham, North Carolina in 1971, political uproar and devastating misunderstanding and hate that somehow leads to a promising change for the future of race relations in America. Most importantly, this is all done through the intensely personal story of two people who couldn’t be more different, couldn’t have less understanding of each other or any deeper enmity, and who ultimately discover that they can work together not only to improve the world, but to create a friendship and connection neither could have ever foreseen.
Based on a true story, the unlikely connection between Ann Atwater, a courageous, strong willed and good-hearted black woman who wants to integrate the public schools and C.P. Ellis, a gun-toting higher-up in the Ku Klux Klan seems beyond improbable. And given the level of ignorance and hate that begins the play, it is all the more amazing that they are able to grow in understanding of one another to the point where both value each other not as spokesmen for their race, but as fellow human beings. Much of that is the achievement of Bill Riddick, an activist sent in to try and open up the schools, as well as the public dialogue about equality and equal opportunity. Finally, we also come to know Ellis’ wife, Mary, who is not only diminished by her husband’s vicious racism and personal downfall, but by his demeaning treatment of her as a wife and partner. In these four people the entire history of the Civil Rights movement is embodied and given a deeply moving life, the pulse of a world capable of growth and change, albeit through great pain and a determined commitment to improving the ways things are.
As Ann Atwater, Faith Russell brings an indomitable strength and integrity to the character. She fully understands that the world is what it is, but that does not mean she thinks it can’t be changed. Given the shallow ignorance and vituperative menace of the C.P. Ellis she first encounters, it is all the more amazing that her pursuit of the man’s common humanity is so central to advancing the plot. Russell is always a strong presence on stage, but in this show she also brings a depth and compassion that dull so many of the sharp edges of intolerance and hatred.
Jeff Berryman has the somewhat thankless task of creating the vicious C.P. Ellis. This is a man about whom Ann says, “When I see a snake I cut its head off”. Although Berryman is totally effective in devising a depth and cruelty to this man, he also manages to let us forgive him after he sees his own life go down the drain, after he loses his wife, his position in the Klan, his status in the community after he commits to a much more worthy goal. Simple as this man appears at the beginning, Berryman manages to make him anything but simple. The terrible costs of his mistakes and illusions are palpable as he enters his final years, and we are all made aware that such wandering, such wrongful paths inevitably costs us all in the same ways. This was a faultless performance.
Corey Spruill was bright and somewhat above it all in his portrait of Bill Riddick. That really worked because this was an outsider who knew the only way to affect real change was to work from the inside, from the inside of the community and the inside of these people. Finally, I really liked the quiet, dignified character that Jenny Vaughn Hall brought to Mary Ellis. In many ways, she was the scoreboard showing all that both teams lost in this altogether too rough game. She was also the one who went to Ann’s home, who reached out to find a common humanity that she could bring back to her own home.
Scott Nolte does an excellent job of directing this complex show made of many small, short scenes. He brought all of his actors to distinct and effective characters, and because the play is a continuous 90 minutes, we feel like we’ve led our entire lives with these people, just as they have with each other. The decision to stage this with absolutely minimal set dressing (Richard Lorig) was perfectly appropriate. This show is first and last about people, not places or things.
“Best of Enemies” is based on the novel by Osha Gray Davidson, but playwright Mark St. Germain knows how to use physical bodies and emotional interiors to give the story on stage a profoundly living heart and soul. This is a fine piece of work on an important and, especially right now, extremely relevant aspect of American life. As a society we have not come as far as these two individuals and that is one of the most powerful questions this fine drama leaves us with. Everyone connected should be very proud of their work and the integrity of this story.
PICTURED ABOVE: Faith Russell, Corey Spruill and Jeff Berryman in "Best of Enemies"
PHOTO BY: Erik Stuhaug