The Best of Enemies is compelling theatre at its best

The Best of Enemies

The Best of Enemies

The Best of Enemies is running at the George Street Playhouse in New Jersey until December 23. We reprint our original 2011 review since the production, director and cast is largely the same as in its original Barrington Stage debut.

Let there be no doubt that The Best of Enemies with Aisha Hinds (l) and John Bedford Lloyd (r) is one of the most important historical plays about America to ever reach the stage. It is also the finest drama I have ever seen at Barrington Stage. It is a modern day parable of the civil rights movement of the 1970’s that expands dry, historical fact into a riveting tale of two polar opposites clashing over how to integrate the schools of Durham, North Carolina.

To capture the sweep and detail of the battle for black rights in the South of forty years ago is no easy task. Playwright Mark St. Germain, contrasts the role that C.P. Ellis had promoting white supremacy with Ann Atwater, a homespun black activist, who is a rare voice in the community, speaking up for simple justice and equal education. The stage treatment for this explosive confrontation was inspired by Osha Gray Davidson’s book of the same name, The Best of Enemies.

St. Germain has kept his story focused on just a few people, yet these larger than life shapers of history are highly charged theatrically. His approach to detailing the civil rights era comes to life in a way that more scholarly approaches would tend to bland out.

Watching The Best of Enemies unfold, we relive the agony of the inexpressibly sorry past when far too many things in America’s southland were labeled either “white” or “coloreds”. In those horrible days, some white men would cross the street rather than to have to pass a black man on the sidewalk. The reverse was true as well.

The repulsive language of white supremacy is plainly spoken on stage with chilling effect. Photos by Kevin Sprague.

C.P.Ellis (played by John Bedford Lloyd) was one of them. In the first scene we find ourselves at a rally of the Ku Klux Klan where Ellis is the Exalted Cyclops. His first words are indeed horrific, insulting beyond anything we hear today. Ellis and his wife Mary (Susan Wands) are doing the best to raise their family on a meager income and like so many racists, C.P. reacts to his poverty by hating those even poorer than himself.

“In slightly more than a generation, the Klan – an invention of the Southern upper classes – was universally regarded as a purely lower-class phenomenon…The Southern redneck would prove to be one of the most durable inventions in American history.” – Osha Gray Davidson

Ann Atwater (Aisha Hinds) is no saint when we meet her either. Despite the Bible she tucks under her arm, she has little love for those white folks around her who daily demean and devalue her very existence. While she clearly sees the hypocrisy in Ellis’ (and the KKK’s) claims of piety to Jesus, she too harbors murderous thoughts and is tempted to act on them.

The two could not be further apart and their story – while real – indeed unfolds almost like a parable. As such, it is a short play (95 minutes) that illustrates a positive and universal truth, that people are capable of change. For Atwater and Ellis their transformation began to take place when both reluctantly agreed to co-chair a charette to determine how to best integrate the Durham school system. This was accomplished, coerced, finessed by a college educated community organizer Bill Riddick (Clifton Duncan) in a series of bold, chancy moves.

Under the steady guidance of director Julianne Boyd the on-stage presentation became a wondrous production that never stopped moving. Key to the feeling of constant motion were a dozen artfully sliding screens that came and went, each filled with simple Ken Burns like historical pictures and projections that enabled the story to change locations in a blink of the eye. The basic bits and pieces of furniture would come and go as needed. At the base of one end of the proscenium arch was the home of Ann Atwater, and on the opposite end the kitchen of C.P. Ellis and his wife Mary. Other than on Broadway itself such technical proficiency is rare indeed. I suspect a good part of the credit has to go to the production stage manager Michael Andrew Rodgers and Director of Production Jeff Roudabush. Both the set pieces and the images enriched each scene with a sense of history while the actors made the events feel as if they were happening for the first time.

Infusing Mark St. Germain’s play with so many verbal and visual artifacts of the past made everyone in the audience a first hand witness to history.

Aisha Hinds delivers a Tony-worthy performance as Ann Atwater in The Best of Enemies. Photos by Kevin Sprague.

Julianne Boyd’s fresh and innovative presentation with its dramatic sweep of the minute details of an important American moment deserves a life beyond the current production. Like St. Germain’s Freud’s Last Session, this is a show that is ready to move on to New York, minimal change required. Barrington Stage has made an important point in American history an absolutely memorable, understandable and riveting evening of theatre. No lecture hall recitation of dry facts, dates, and names can even come close to its educational power.

C.P.: “It’s a funny thing. My old friends won’t talk to me. Those new white folks I met at the Charette, I can’t talk to them, I’m not educated like they are.”

Ann: “You know the terrible thing we did, C.P.? We changed. If people think that’s a crime, then let them. They’re wrong and we’re right. Your life’s not over, just your old one. You’ve got to get on with the new one.”

As Ann Atwater, Aisha Hinds returned to the stage after almost a decade away doing film and tv. Her portrayal of the fiery, fierce and wholly human civic leader was stunning in its power and complexity. As a raging bullhorn, she held her own with the equally bombastic C.P. Ellis character. She struggles with life, and yet still grows and changes, seeing the world with new understanding. It is reflected in not only her words, but her face and body postures.

As Ellis, John Bedford Lloyd had an equal challenge as an actor, to reflect the changes in attitude and opinion that slowly happened in his thinking. Clifton Duncan as Bill Riddick was successful in making his job as a facilitator feel like this wasn’t an actor, but someone setting everything up for us. The briefest role was held by Susan Wands as Mary, C.P.’s wife, and she was able to convince us that while stuck in an awful marriage, she was strong enough to try to change her Exalted Cyclops of a husband.

To date this summer we have had two brilliant musicals, well done comedies, and now we have the first truly great dramatic epic of the 2011 season, The Best of Enemies. Who knew history could be so entertaining, that you could transform such troubling times into something so moving, riveting, and powerful.

Once again Mark St. Germain has shown that the true skill of a great playwright is not just the writing, it is recognizing a great story when they see it. The Best of Enemies is the best play about the Civil Rights era ever to hit the stage. Kudos to Barrington Stage Company for this gift, part of the Lift Ev’ry Voice Festival in Pittsfield, 2011.

It should be noted that this production would never have happened without the help and support of Sydelle and Lee Blatt.

There is no shortage of surprises in The Best of Enemies. The biggest one happens at the very end when a Gospel Choir appears from behind a scrim and the audience is lifted to its feet. It includes members of the Price Memorial AME Zion Church as well as members of local church choirs and other members of the Berkshire community. Bless them all. (Photo by Kevin Sprague)

Notes: The Best of Enemies returned to Barrington Stage for a limited run October 5-16, 2011. It played at the George Street Playhouse in New Jersey November 27-December 3, 2012 with much of the same cast under the direction of Julianne Boyd.

Barrington Stage Company presents The Best of Enemies by Mark St. Germain, Scenic Design by David M. Barber, Costumes by Kristina Lucka, Lights by Scott Pinkney, Sound by Brad Berridge, Directed by Julianne Boyd. Cast: John Bedford Lloyd (C.P. Ellis), Aisha Hinds (Ann Atwater), Clifton Duncan (Bill Riddick), Susan Wands (Mary Ellis). 95 Minutes without intermission. July 21-August 6, 2011. Mainstage at Barrington Stage Company, Union Street, Pittsfield, MA.

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