The Unlikely Friendship at the Center of BEST OF ENEMIES Proves Truth Can Be Stranger than Fiction

The aim of argument, or of discussion, should not be victory, but progress. – Joseph Joubert

Mark St. Germain’s 2012 drama, Best of Enemies, adapted from the book of the same name by Osha Gray Davidson, offers a potent lesson on the need to rise above prejudices and differences to work together for the common good. In this case, the desegregation of Durham schools in the 1970s sets the stage for an unlikely friendship. For many reasons, though, this lesson may be even more relevant some 50 years later.

The Justice Theater Project’s production, with Yamila Monge making her directorial debut, and artistic director, Jerry Sipp, designing the set to effectively transport the audience to the era, vividly portrays the animosity of the two main characters, Ann Atwater, a Black community activist, and C.P. Ellis, a leader in the Ku Klux Klan, amid the tensions that followed the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Laws change, but entrenched attitudes are harder to regulate.

C.P. Ellis (Brian Yandle) strides onto the stage in full KKK regalia, spewing hatred, reveling in the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and vowing to prevent racial integration in Durham schools. His bigotry knows no bounds, and Yandle conveys the full intensity of Ellis’s beliefs in white supremacy. Indeed this part of his performance is so forceful that it almost obscures his conflicted feelings and later breakdown.

Ann Atwater (J. Ra’Chel Fowler) delivers her own elevated level of intensity with straight-forward criticisms and witty, snappy retorts that expose underlying truths. This Atwater is single-minded, unembarassed by her opinions, and willing to say what she thinks and feels – a force to be reckoned with. Fowler maintains her high-spirited pitch throughout both to portray Atwater’s anger and frustration and to deflect the uncomfortable realities of her own life.

Enter Bill Riddick, a community organizer who wants these two to co-chair a charette, a public meeting to identify common goals and find a way of working toward them. DJ Brinson’s Riddick is calm, rational, seemingly non-plussed whether Ellis hurls racial epithets at him or Atwater openly expresses her skepticism and distrust. This Riddick seems impervious, coming to Durham to facilitate change despite the odds and lack of cooperation or support.

Predictably, the first meeting between Ellis and Atwater, with Riddick mediating, or perhaps more accurately, refereeing, is explosive. Both Yandle and Fowler open the throttle in these early encounters, emphasizing the ingrained beliefs of their characters. But it is in these confrontations where the transformation of Ellis begins, especially as he is ostracized by neighbors and friends for his activism work with Atwater. 

And while Riddick and Atwater are challenging Ellis, it is Mary Ellis who fully understands how hard it is for her husband to change. Amanda Lee Scherle delivers a subtle, riveting performance as a wife unhappy with her husband’s political views, nudging him to put aside his prejudices and work towards their children’s future.

Most scenes are short and crisp, with video projections adding historical backdrop to ground the action. St. Germain’s script emphasizes the redemption of C.P. Ellis as well as nods to the contributions of Bill Riddick and Mary Ellis. Still, the bulk of the story centers on Ellis and his transformation, as well as the price he paid for the change in his convictions. In fact, it’s only in Atwater’s final speech that the audience gets a glimpse into how the friendship affected her life. 

Clocking in at roughly 90 minutes, Best of Enemies offers an uplifting ending and makes the case that while remembering the past can elicit despair, it can also inspire optimism for the future.

The Best of Enemies runs through February 26. For more information visit http://www.thejusticetheaterproject.org/.

Hear Beltline to Broadway’s interview with Osha Gray Davidson, the author of the book, which inspired the movie and play.

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