The Best of Enemies
C.P. Ellis (John Bedford Lloyd) is literally entitled, believe it or not, Exalted Cyclops of the Durham Ku Klux Klan. Bigoted and closed-minded, he is immediately hostile toward Ann Atwater (Aisha Hinds), a strong, vocal, expressive black woman who is a civil rights proponent. During the first portion of the play, these two, not surprisingly, are quite perturbed with one another. Attempting to facilitate some proactive movement is Bill Riddick (Clifton Duncan) a young black man who is a mediator and community organizer. C.P. is married to Mary (Susan Wands), a sensible and loyal individual who becomes terminally ill. Real and grounded, she contemplates her children's future.
Bill, early on, says, "We have to create programs addressing racial issues in our schools. The process is called a 'charette.'" He goes on, "It's French for meetings between people of different points of view to come to an understanding and we keep meeting till they do."
For much of the time, the plot is predictable: two individuals, initially sharing only their fiscal statuslower class, denounce one another, finally form a détente, then become fast friends. C.P. loses his loving wife and Ann comforts and consoles him. C.P. previously ripped his KKK card into shreds. Ultimately, he becomes Chief Steward, a union organizer, and a pivotal figure in the desegregation effort.
Julianne Boyd, directing, makes a wise choice by projecting images of Durham (including buildings, streets, hospital interior, etc.) to create feel, tone, and atmosphere for the proceedings. Designer David M. Barber adds a well-worn kitchen table and chairs stage left where C.P. and Mary convene. On the opposite side, Ann is able to retreat to a fairly comfortable looking chair and table as this is representative of her home.
To traverse the 95-minute script, Boyd must utilize many blackouts as one vignette moves to the next and so on. The director hasn't really any other options, yet the multitude of stops and starts is not ideal. The progression is clear but the fluency of the piece is somewhat compromised. Still, the warmth, power, and thematic message resound. It is impossible not to empathize.
Production elements and quality of performance, too, are of high caliber. Boyd's direction is precise. The evening first seems to end as the death of C.P. is announced. Not quite. Finally, a gospel choir appears and furnishes a rousing rendition of "I'm Going with Jesus."
All four actors are most convincing. Hinds, as Ann, is impossible to dislike from her very first word. This performance marks a return to the live stage after nearly a decade appearing often on television and the large screen. Lloyd, with impressive credits on Broadway and elsewhere, nails his character from the opening moment and modifies his attitude and disposition accordingly.
The opening night audience enjoyed special post-curtain introductions of the very-much-living and actual Ann Atwater and Bill Riddick.
While The Best of Enemies certainly succeeds, whether live theater is the genre which best realizes the most complete potential of the work is open to contemplation.
The Best of Enemies continues at Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, through August 6th. For tickets, call (413) 236-8888 or visit barringtonstageco.org.
- Fred Sokol