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.