Durham, North Carolina. 1971. The viciously racist Exalted Cyclops of the local Ku Klux Klan and a feisty, sassy Black female civil-rights activist are hoodwinked into serving together on a commission charged with integrating the public schools in town. Though they do their best to hate each other – and indeed come awfully close to mutual murder – eventually they arrive instead at a place of mutual trust, admiration, perhaps even… love? Sounds like the preposterous premise of a cut-rate cable movie, but in this case it’s a true story: C. P. Ellis and Ann Atwater were real people, and their complicated relationship is the subject of Mark St. Germain’s The Best of Enemies, directed by David Rose.
Ellis (Larry Cedar), whom we first see dressed head to toe in flame-colored satin, addressing his Klan brothers, is brought together with Atwater (Tiffany Rebecca Royale) by Bill Riddick (Shon Fuller), a smug young Black social worker sent by the federal government to organize a “charrette.” Charrette is a French word used to describe an intensive problem-solving design process, in this case bringing the whole community together to come up with a solution for court-ordered integration.
There are also what seem like occasional logical shortcuts in this section which lead us to question the story. It seems bizarre that the head of the Klan would so readily agree to a public lunch at a popular diner with two Black activists, and Ellis’s first major acquiescence to a part of the plan seems more contrived than earned. However, when dealing with real people and real situations, reality often proves messier than fiction, and it’s possible things happened just as they’re portrayed. Nevertheless, the first section of the play is less compelling than what follows.
For about midway through, the play shifts into a less frenetic rhythm: the scenes become longer and more relaxed – or at least seem that way, as we come to know the characters better – and the focus becomes more about the relationships among the people than about the simple facts of the matter. We begin to look at the characters less as representative totems and more as individuals. C. P.’s wife Mary (Holly Hawkins) helps humanize a man who has heretofore seemed an unconscionable bigot, and we discover that the couple has a severely handicapped son. Likewise, we discover that Ann has difficulties of her own, and is suffering financially to the point of not having enough for her family to eat.
Mr. Cedar and Ms Royale are well-matched, giving fiercely charged performances that throw off sparks whenever they meet. Ms Royale has been given most of the laugh lines – which she tosses off expertly – while Mr. Cedar has been given the more emotional moments, including the applause-worthy one in which he tears up his Klan membership card.
Ms Hawkins, looking uncannily like a faded Reba McIntyre, brings dignity and warmth to her role, while Mr. Fuller is appropriately brash as a young man, and makes a fine transformation to an older but wiser gentleman at the end.
Though The Best of Enemies starts shakily, by the end it proves a powerfully moving testament to the best of our humanity. It tells an important but little-known story about a turbulent period in our history, and does it with both humor and tears. Get yourself to The Colony Theatre to see it.
The Best of Enemies
Written by Mark St. Germain
Directed by David Rose
Through October 18
The Colony Theatre
555 North Third Street
Tickets: 818-558-7000 x15 or www.ColonyTheatre.org