Monday, August 8, 2011

Bring "Enemies" to New York!

I traveled to Pittsfield, Mass. this past weekend to catch one of the last performances of Mark St. Germain's The Best of Enemies at the Barrington Stage Company - an amazing tale of friendship overcoming entrenched racial barriers.

I interviewed Mark last fall for a Religion News Service feature on his play Freud's Last Session, which has been running for more than a year off-Broadway. At the same time, I attended a staged reading of The Best of Enemies in Pittsfield and thought "St Germain's done it again" - found a compelling story featuring real people and created a brilliant piece of theater.

This summer, Barrington presented Enemies in a fully staged production and it has lost none of its power.

Producers, bring this play to New York soon!

The book of the same name by Osha Gray Davidson told the story of 1970s Durham, N.C., where schools were still segregated 20 years after Brown vs. the Board of Education and where two unwilling citizens were brought together to address the issue.

"Community organizer" Bill Riddick came to town and convinced black activist Ann Atwater and local Ku Klux Klan leader C.P. Ellis to co-chair a process called a "charrette," where citizens gather and discuss a local problem and search for solutions. There was just one little catch to this plan: Atwater and Ellis virulently despised each other. According to Ellis, "whites and niggers will never get along because they shouldn't!" The play doesn't shy away from the viciously racist language used by some at the time, but always in context.

The play opens with Ellis, played by John Bedford Lloyd, telling his (unseen) Klan meeting that it's too bad that Martin "Lucifer" King got assassinated in Memphis because he would have liked to have done the job in Durham. Atwater, played by Aisha Hinds, for her part, is yelling at a town hall receptionist, asking what the city is going to do to commemorate Dr. King, and threatening to toss her out a window if she calls the police.

As Riddick, Clifton Duncan is smooth and persuasive, convincing the antagonists that they'd better take part in the process if only to keep an eye on what the other group is doing. St. Germain keeps the suspense up, as Atwater and Ellis begin to work together but still don't seem to recognize any kind of common humanity in the other. Gradually, though, they connect as parents (Ellis has three kids, one disabled, and Ann has two) and as members of Durham's working class, realizing that poor whites and poor blacks may occupy similar rungs of society.

In a very affecting scene, Ellis realizes he joined the Klan for a sense of belonging, to connect with the better-off guys in town. But as he works for the betterment of Durham's schools, a process that will inevitably lead to integration, his so-called friends snub him and his gas station business suffers. This shock, coupled with his wife's health crisis, brings him to the point of despair.

Atwater begins to see Ellis as a person who has paid a brutal price for his work with her and the hard knot of hatred and resentment in her heart begins to relax. Astonishingly, Ellis went on to work as an organizer for a labor union whose membership was 90 percent black - and Atwater, referring to him as "my brother," spoke at his funeral. The last line of the play - which I won't reveal - brought tears.

Hinds and Lloyd did marvelous work, but occasionally I felt they could have moderated the anger a bit, that the performances were becoming a little one-note, with most of the richness revealed at the end. (At last year's reading, Dan Butler and Starla Benford modulated the characters a bit better.) Duncan nicely shows us Riddick's discomfort when the charette process jumps his careful plan: Ellis wants to post an exhibit in the school about the KKK and Atwater agrees to it, telling her people that they need to know how people think in order to "fight with your brain." As Ellis' wife Mary, Susan Wands creates a portrait of a woman struggling to love her husband despite his sometimes-unfathomable behavior. In general, however, for all the actors, the North Carolina accent could have been on a firmer footing.

If my recall is accurate, a couple of elements have been added: sound snippets from Sen. Jesse Helms' campaigns that help give context to the events and a speech from Ellis to the black trade union that was originally a voiceover. I didn't mind the voiceover. When Ellis entered to give his speech, it looked as if we were entering a new aspect of the play, whereas the voiceover lowered the emotional temperature, preparing us for the final scene - Atwater's eulogy.

David Barber's scene designs smartly used projections (including historic photos of downtown Durham) and playing areas, although I could have used a pew onstage for the funeral scenes, rather than the table and folding chairs from previous scenes.

This is an important play for our times, as much for what it subtly says about economic status in America as for its illumination of an inspiring story. Beyond the always-emotional story of enemies who become friends, it's important, too, to shine a light on such groups as the KKK and on events and attitudes that aren't so far in the past - just 40 years, in the case of The Best of Enemies. Today, with a black President and a working class devastated by recession, we need to hear this play. 

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