C.P. Ellis (Ryan Schaufler) stands on a lye soap box publicly railing against all ideas suggesting black Americans’ right to liberty, especially education. He’s dressed in his Klu Klux Klan best, a silky white robe with a pointed hood. This is Durham, North Carolina in 1971. Home of Duke University, known earlier in the century as ‘Magic City’, the place that reached racial reconciliation one generation after the civil war.
In opposition to racial integration of public accomodations, Ellis lobs denigrating terms directly associating the entirety of the African-American masses with pestulence, concluding the crux of the matter of integrated schools, “…Next thing you know ni**ers will be sniffing after our daughters’ behinds.” Even in a dramatic context the term stings the ears and rips the flesh.
He’s accompanied by two choruses, on each side of him, also segregated by race, who quickly level mood with a Christian spiritual singing, “…just like a tree that’s planted by the water, I shall not be moved.” The vocalists provide harmonic and comic relief to this well-acted but challenging production.
Best of Enemies director Erin Nicole Eggers takes on a huge task bringing to life Mark St. Germain’s adaptation of Osha Gray Davidson’s novel. The story chronicles the unlikely real life friendship formed between Ellis and Ann Atwater (Lori Woodall), a spirited black resident of Durham, as the town struggled with legally mandated school desegregation.
Eggers makes some strong choices to ground the play in an evolving yet persistent historical narrative of tense social relations in the US. Three screens suspended upstage catch projected still photographic evidence of America’s ordeals with cultural, religious and mostly racial discrimination. These images cycling through in a random slide show, initially create a bit of discomfort reminding us of how open an blantant discrimination was less than 50 years ago. These images slowly fade into a profound subtext for this play, reinforcing that this story is very much rooted in an unfortunate reality.
Her choice to use ‘historically accurate’ language in the script signifies another place Eggers willingly accepts risk to great affect. We are brought into contact with insults and weaponized literary devices of all types. The open use of these terms force us to confront reality, beyond our personal sensibilities, and how we must reconcile our association with those viewed as similar to us.
Town of Thunder
Ann Atwater enters as a vocal and no nonsense black woman resident of Durham. She’s seen a lot and is ready for change. School desegregation orders have come, however skeptical her ‘right-mind’ makes her that this will make any difference in the state of affairs that keep African-Americans as second class citizens. She knows C.P. Ellis and claims to fear no man in the face of his hate charged racial separatist tirades. They’ve clashed in the past and likely will again.
Unexpectedly, Bill Riddick (Derrion Brown) arrives in town. He’s well-spoken and well-read representative from the US Department of Education. He also happens to be black. He’s come to garner whatever consensus he can to accept the new social arrangements the US government wants to induce.
A Troubled Calm
Eggers through St. Germain’s adaption finds the greatest traction in making this story immediately relevant by tying threads from the old time racist mentality to current conditions. Ellis in a memorable scene, meeting Riddick for the first time, vehemently rebuffs Riddick as a Yankee communist stating, “We don’t want anything the Federal government has to offer, we don’t take anything from anyone.” It sounds eerily familiar to a segment of the political discussion today.
Ellis is a gas station clerk, and son of a mill worker. One is left to wonder if this class consciousness alludes to the benefits many Northern whites enjoyed, in the years winding through the mid 20th century, that bestowed suburban housing and college education through the G.I. Bill, capital investment of the Federal Highway Administration and urban Community Reinvestment all from the Federal government.
Eventually Riddick’s mission gets a break when Atwater and Ellis agree to meet to discuss the integration of the school. In the retribution they both face from their respective communities, here again we are brought to view an extremely consequential element of American racism: its social reenforcement. Ellis’ drawn lot decidly the harsher of the two. In a tumultuous series of acts to follow, Ellis and Atwater dance a strenuous and forbidden dance that crossed the color-line in a way that no one had previously dared to do.
Cast Shines Light
Best of Enemies casts Elaine Wyler as C.P. Ellis’s wife Mary Ellis alongside Schaufler, Woodall and Brown, who all deliver enjoyable and believable performances. Schaufler and Woodall notably nail the unmistakable drawl hanging from Southern speech. Walker matter of factly shows us the disturbing circumstances many Southern women lived under, and their quiet resilience. Brown an upbeat and talented actor, acts his part with a large helping of charisma. It’s a masterful piece of small stage theatre that brings the audience through troubled waters in view of a hopeful future that we can attain if we all take ownership of the trappings of crude ethnocentrism.
The production models diverse casting with major and secondary roles being played by individuals from many racial backgrounds, and maintains gender balance. The chorus was sung by Susie Duecker, Paul Fojut, Lachrisa Grandberry, Andrew Parchman, Ben Parman, Kwasi Stamply, Bailey Steger, Terry Lee Watkins Jr, and Glenn Widdicombe.
Best of Enemies’ final performance was March 26, 2017 at the Todd Wehr Auditorium at the Concordia Mequon Campus.
She punctuated her riff on Van Morrison’s golden-era classic Gloria, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine.” His version introduced suburbia to shady rock stars. Her version, In Excelsis Deo, the first song in Patti Smith’s long awaited return to Milwaukee, brought the audience to its feet in a standing ovation.
Many a Milwaukeean waited 38 years to hear Patti Smith’s searing voice amplified again. Nearly half of Milwaukee’s populous never had a chance ‘to be there’. The other half, unless transplanted or quite intrepid, waited their entire adult lives to witness this night within the city limits.
Patti Smith rocks this night in Milwaukee on the same date she met MC5’s “Sonic” Smith in Detroit, on the midwest tour that brought her to Milwaukee for the first time in 1976 (She came back in 1979). Her son, by him, stands in her peripheral vision on guitar.
Patti jokes before launching into a trilogy of songs written about Fred, “We actually didn’t create him on the that day.” March 9 is hence forth proclaimed Patti Smith day in Milwaukee. She took a second mid-show to retrieve the framed Proclamation to prove it. She duly notes Mayor Barrett gave it to her himself, in her mind outclassing NYCs mayor by a mile.
On her victory lap of the 40th anniversary tour of Horses, she is reciting the entire album. With two leafs of paper in hand she shows us her gift of song is best understood through her poetry. She’s delivering the prologue to Birdland, recounting a child, a funeral, a farm, long black cars and a shiny red tractor. As she reaches the end of these lines, she lets the first piece of paper fall from her hand.
The second sheet of paper she held floats to the floor, she left it to physics to tell the paper where to land. The first verse rolls into the second, then the refrain, she extolls in the voice of a young child who has lost their father, “…Take-me-up… Open up-the-belly-of-the-ship, the ships light-opening…I’ll go in…” By the third refrain she’s belting, shaking, “I-am-not-human…!”
As her breath is completely used, at 70 her mouth is still wet with saliva and she spits ruthlessly on the stage apron without flinching and rocks out the rest of the song. I’ve been to hundreds of shows and have never witnessed true moxie until this moment. Her natural irreverent performative power, carrying with it the essence of everything that festered No Wave from the burned out, and otherwise deleterious, bowels of downtown NYC, shining.
Old Milwaukee Style
Numerous signage within the Milwaukee Theatre commanded patrons not to record video, audio or still photography of Patti Smith’s performance. Naturally, a few phone screens can be scene flicking mementos.
As the impromptu general admission section forms in front of the first row, a dumbass positions himself right at Patti’s feet and begins egregiously filming with his cell phone. The man is forcefully ushered back to his seat, in the middle section at the 10th row, by a wild haired member of someone’s entourage.
Patti stops the show to drag him, “He’s going to jail… he’ll be in jail looking at all the other cell phones with half-filmed documentaries” keeping the warrior code she vanquishes him completely with something to the effect of ‘nobody’s gonna watch your half-filmed documentary of a show you could have watched yourself but you were too busy on your phone.’
Unphased by this disruption, she carries on to Free Money, an impassioned anthem weaving a youthful daydream caught in the follies love, ambition and broke-ness. A song that begins as a ballad, erupts into a controlled rage with Patti emphatically singing fortissimo “When you’re dreaming, When you’re dreaming…” trembling, spitting, and possessed.
Possessed. Her intuitive understanding of voice and performative energy, and her sense gravity and urgency to use them, brought me to admire Patti Smith; her ability to say something beyond her ego. Yet she comes off grounded and accessible, grand in her ability to flaunt her flaws humbly.
She’s repeatedly gone to her hands and knees to wipe puddles of brew and water from the stage between songs. Having both chastised and warmly recieved the front section, she flung some beer soaked socks back at them (after someone lamely managed to get their socks off in a sway pit and throw them on stage during Dancing Barefoot). At a later point she goes shoeless, taking off her own black leather riding boots and socks explaining, “I’m pretty messy, only one of us can be messy in here.”
Power of Rememberance
We learn another dimension of her being. Her songs Break it Up and Elegie are tributes to Jim Morrison and Hendrix. Break it Up recounts a dream Smith had about Morrison after his death. He escapes entombment as a marble angle and ascends to the sky.
It’s striking to think Smith knew Morrison and Hendrix’s lives to be so monumental to commemorate them on Horses four or five years after their deaths. We’ll see in 2021, if Lou Reed, Bowie, or Prince stay in our collective pop memory enough for an artist to carve out time for them on an album. I doubt it. Many artist these days are loathe to publicly acknowledge anyone’s artistic influence but their own, even if they’ve stolen their entire persona.
Power of Recall
Smith reminds us the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love has come upon us; a landmark year of national turbulence and hope, receding into despair in 1968. She laments that her generation had potential to bring balance to the world with its vision of a just, harmonious and multicultural society.
She provides this epilogue to her cover of The Who’s My Generation, noting her generation (her birth year to be exact) also gave birth to Trump. She uses her pulpit to call out the rights-and-wrongs of the world.
In this regard, she never sold out, evoking the audience to be mindful with hearts full to defend America, its natural resources, its principles, and our fellow Americans. She called out Standing Rock, our waters and our boarders and told us in song ‘People have the Power’.
In relation to the political cycle, our ‘summer of love’ would’ve been 2015. Society finds itself in a similar position, resisting social progress, and a growing an appetite to deepen our governments role in largely pointless violent global and domestic conflict. At least Nixon had reasonable sensibilities about protecting America’s natural resources. Contemplating and channeling the Summer of Love may be what we need.
As Patti reached the end of her set list, we were never forced to face the fact that we’ve been watching a person at the age of 70 deliver a masterful and virile performance, having out-classed and outwitted us the entire night.
Her singing voice, what might be more aptly referred to as her instrument, has maintained its rare and unorthodox tuning after all these years.
Her son Jackson and her life long friends Lenny Kaye and Jay Dee Daugherty were here with her. Her long time bandmates look better than most forty year olds. Still together, they must be doing something right.
After a short break, at the end of the Horses set, they reappear and Kaye has a red solo cup, “What made Milwaukee Famous, made a loser out of me.” They definitely still have fun, and deep down must love this town.
Lean on Us
Smith’s people came out in force, spanning generations like Smith’s music. Burn outs turned yuppie, and burn outs still burned out; dirt punk and tragically hip kids, war veterans; people who have lost their mobility with old age have made a special trip out after dark to see Patti Smith.
Milwaukeeans entering their prime years have done their part recently to honor Smith’s legacy and influence. In 2014, Betty Strigens of Testa Rosa took over Alverno Presents to do Smith Uncovered, a series of retakes on cornerstone Smith songs. Reaching further in the MKE indie art scene artist space Orcanine Abbey’s exhibition Ego vs Rant (also 2014) was in part a tribute to Smith’s contributions to art ethos.
Pay No Mind
Although recently the ‘mainstream’ has finally noted her stature more readily, we could attribute Patti Smith’s relative obscurity to her contemporaries. Ramon, Reed, Warhol sat as giants in the lore of NYC music and art scene.
Even when her music was featured in Natural Born Killers in the mid-1990s (which is how I unwittingly fell in love with Patti Smith), she was omitted from the original soundtrack in favor of other more relevant artists.
I went to my VHS dub of this movie many days after school and the music from the opening sequences always stuck. Searching for this music was part of that life’s phase, I reached for the first time late in the 00’s, of retracing my teenage obsessions. A quest 15 years in the making, brought me to L7 and Patti Smith.
Presumably, the Natural Born Killers producers purposefully omitted sections of her song Rock N Roll Ni**er. The chorus set the movie up so fittingly, “Outside of society, is where I wanna be…!”
Although conveniently taken out of context in the movie’s opening sequence, when I heard the song from beginning-to-end for the first time I smiled inside. When I learned more about Smith, it was impossible to imagine that a woman speaking from her perspective could earn the type of license needed to speak this word authentically.
Draining the Moat
In the context of the time period, she spoke new meaning, specifically, to a most despicable word. She spoke this meaning in a way that destroyed the mysticism and power of that despicable word in American society.
When Smith was done with it, the word no longer described an inherent inferiority of an entire group of people. It wouldn’t be far fetched that she was honoring Hendrix here too.
What she did in Rock N Roll Ni**r is emblematic of her importance as an rock icon. She’s a performance artist, but half of the time she is making new meaning across a load of flawed social conventions that are reinforced through popular culture (especially music). She deliberately crushes anything that fundamentally serves to reinforce dominance of one group of people over another group, or nature for that matter.
I suspect her Gloria (In Excelsis Deo) is much the same type of glass shattering response to Van Morrison’s Gloria, which is a fun but thinly veiled early attempt to objectify young women as sex objects through music.
She occupies a strange place in music. When seen as a performance artist, critics eyes could easily avert their gaze. A woman with deeply thoughtful commentary and command of language arts might be considered worse than nasty to the mainstream consciousness.
Grace in Torture
Bob Dylan chose Patti Smith to perform in his place at his Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony earlier this year. I’m sure he had his reasons, he’s a master of irony. Half the world probably shuddered as she stumbled through Dylan’s Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall.
A truly difficult song, most people probably hear something new every time they listen to it. The pan shots of this black tie event revealed the saddest thing about this audience, their smugly arrogant faces barely looked like they knew who Patti Smith was. They honestly didn’t deserve her presence.
As the show closed and Patti left the stage, a deep appreciation filled the auditorium. We wanted her and were honored by her mystical aura, I saw orange.
Her audience’s screams and applause cued an encore. Smith returns to the stage with a leather cuff on her right wrist and a guitar. She walks in front of the kick drum that had her name and Horses written in white Helvetica on it. She plugs-in to the amp sitting below and cranks it.
She snatches the PACE flag that was hanging in front of the drum kit, beside the Imperial Ethiopian flag, and drapes it over her head as she runs her black leather cuff up the neck of the guitar. She screams through her arm, the amp wailing made-up chords, reverb, distortion to hell.
The guitar’s parts struggle to contain her disturbed technique, you can hear creaking. Then snap, she pries the whammy bar off. She’s bending notes right in front of the amp for maximum noise, ping. The E string pops loose under the strain of her hand, she rips it from the guitar.
One by one she agonizingly severs the strings from the bridge. When none are left she tosses the guitar aside. She exhales, pauses and accepts the audience’s adoration graciously with an outstretched two/handed wave good-bye.
Moments from leaving the audience in a buzz, Patti reappears on stage. She’s shredded a really rad show, ripped a guitar to pieces, and just remembered to pickup her Patti Smith Day Proclamation; the last act to play CDBG’s redefining punk once again under a rainbow moon in Milwaukee.
Patti Smith returned to Milwaukee on March 9, 2017. She handn’t been here since June 6, 1979.