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The Best of Enemies
Chills are replaced by chagrin and then by cheers as we are made to feel like involved participants in the volatile confrontations and subsequent unlikely relationship and eventual friendship between two formidable, disparate protagonists — the black North Carolina Civil Rights activist Ann Atwater (Aisha Hinds) and the white Exalted Cyclops of the Durham Chapter of the Ku Klux Klan C.P. Ellis (John Bedford Lloyd). Each represents a diametrically opposing position on the future direction of racial relationships. This, as they are persuaded by a representative of the Department of Education Bill Riddick (Don Guillory) to co-chair an official program — a Charrett — designated by a grant to address racial issues in the schools.
Through this opportunity for a community dialogue to be held over a ten-day period, Ann and C.P., as reluctantly recruited adversaries, see the extent to which their personal socio-political posturing and their inability to compromise especially in the light of their own limiting and limited perspectives has been a deterrent for progress. Punctuated with often shockingly fiery rhetoric and peppered by more funny, snappy, pungent dialogue than you generally get even in an all-out comedy, The Best of Enemies gets an added lift from its seriously considered subject, as it does from its underlying theme --- the potential for transformation and change through thoughts, words and deeds, or to use a Christian metaphor, be born again.
A special cheer is in order for the George Street Theater for presenting this production that had its world premiere at the Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Massachusetts in July 2011 and returned there in October under the direction of the Barrington’s Artistic Director Julianne Boyd. (To read Elyse Sommer's review when the play premiered in Pittsfield and a picture of the two leads also at George Street go here).
The Best of Enemies is a heady, thought-provoking and exciting theatrical brew for those who enjoy a stimulating, excellently acted evening of theater. Boyd, who has garnered praise for her artistic and executive leadership of the theater that she co-founded in 1995, achieved national attention with the development and production of William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin’s musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee which went on to great success on Broadway and helped to finance the acquisition of Barrington's handsome year-round theater in Pittsfield.
It was also at Barrington Stage where Germain’s acclaimed play Freud’s Last Session, an imaginary meeting between Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis, had its premiere prior to its long run success Off Broadway as well as elsewhere. There is nothing imaginary, however, about the meeting between Ann and C.P. in The Best of Enemies. Although the dramatic arc of the play concentrates on the unexpected and circuitous path toward a remarkable friendship that is gradually paved between the feisty, unrelenting agitator Ann and C.P., her belligerently intolerant adversary, when they are brought together to co-chair a community meeting in 1971 to debate school desegregation in Durham. If each, as we see them, is fueled by a shared and strongly committed hatred and prejudice for each other and for each other’s race, they are revealed ready for a change of heart and hope through a series of meetings and by the issues that they have to deal with in their personal lives.
The play becomes much more than whether the contemptuously condescending C.P. can pull back from attacking Ann and what she represents, and whether he is motivated to reconsider his hate-filled rants at meetings with his fellow members of the K.K.K. While these things are addressed, as is the embittered Ann’s past, the play brings us even more empathetically into the fray as C.P. has to deal with a more personally affecting issue at home with his wife Mary (Susan Wands). Her instinct to be supportive to C.P. despite his overt bigotry and active racism is suddenly challenged by a major health issue compounded by having to cope with a child (unseen) who is both blind and retarded.
With only their Southern roots and their lowly economic status in common, as well their attempt to represent their opposing factions and views in the fight for civil rights, the plot’s most significant turn concerns C.P.’s gradual rejection of the KKK and his eventually standing up with Ann in her cause. At first, Hinds shows us Ann as an uncompromising, grittily determined force of nature. She’s a hoot, but it’s only a clue to the depth and degree of emotional range that finally defines her performance.
Aside from watching Lloyd graduate from being a monster to a mensch, is the pleasure of seeing how subtly he is able to win our affection and empathy as an uneducated victim of an unconscionable social system. It may be next to impossible not to see a young Barack Obama in the good-looking Guillory’s steadfast, unfettered performance as Riddick, the designated community organizer. Wands is very affecting and real as Mary whom we also see reaching out in the only way she can to Ann, but without her husband’s knowledge.
Moving along briskly under Boyd’s direction, the often bristling play has been inventively designed by David M. Barber to take its participants with ease from place to place through the use of projections and sliding panels on a stage divided into three sections.
In a pre-curtain speech, George Street’s Artistic Director let the audience know that although the real seventy-seven year-old Ann Atwater wasn’t able to attend the opening night performance to which she was invited was, nevertheless, “alive and kicking.” That can also be said for St. Germain’s play.
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