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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

The Best of Enemies: A Transformative Moment During the Struggle for Civil Rights

Best of Enemies
Aisha Hinds, Don Guillory and
John Bedford Lloyd

Set in Durham, North Carolina, in 1971, The Best of Enemies, a new play by Mark St. Germain, depicts the true life relationship between Ann Atwater, a mother of two who is a strong-willed black civil rights activist, and C.P. Ellis, a service station operator with a disabled son, who is the vile, hate-filled Exalted Cyclops of the local Ku Klux Klan.

It is seventeen years after the 1957 landmark unanimous Supreme Court decision in the case of Brown v. Board of Education declaring that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal." The long, hard-fought process of achieving desegregation in the Durham City High Schools has been completed, but there are still difficulties to overcome in order to peacefully and successfully implement the integration of the formerly all-black Hillside High School.

Enter Bill Riddick, a black man who is a dedicated community activist from the Department of Education. He is present in order to involve the local citizenry in planning for the school opening, and thusly obtain their support and minimize conflict. When both Atwater and Ellis come to a meeting to pursue their diametrically opposed agendas, Atwater manages to enlist them to co-chair a series of meetings on local implementation. Although he begins by seeking to undermine integration, Ellis gradually comes to see that he has much in common with Atwater, both as a concerned parent and an economically exploited person.

There is much that is admirable and praiseworthy about the efforts of St. Germain, director Julianne Boyd, and the strong cast that Boyd has assembled for this play. And it makes for a lively and entertaining evening in the theatre.

The Best of Enemies is a four character play (Atwater, Ellis, Riddick and Ellis's wife) which involves many other characters whose presence is evoked by their being addressed while just out of view, projections of photographs and newspaper headlines, and an excellently designed soundscape including voices, sound effects and music (starting from the opening scene in which Ellis addresses a Klan meeting). The scenic and projections designs by David M. Barber are a major contribution to the realization of this play.

Aisha Hinds delivers a terrific, idiosyncratic interpretation of Ann Atwater. Hinds displays an outsized "attitude" that is simultaneously larger than life and true to life. Part and parcel of this "attitude" is the concerned, caring nature that motivated Atwater. Neither John Bedford Lloyd nor the text of the play shies away from the hateful, bullying, vicious nature of Klan Cyclops C. P. Ellis. Lloyd is later as convincing as the situation allows in depicting Lloyd's stumbling and at first confused retreat from his hateful ways. (It is the racial epithets that spring like hellfire from Ellis's lips which brings me to echo the theatre's warning that ... Enemiesis likely unsuitable for pre-adolescents.)

Don Guillory is totally ingratiating as the kindly, shrewd, brilliant and determined Bill Riddick (the guy even employs the French word "charette" a bit whimsically to disarm the townsfolk). It is surely no coincidence that you cannot help but think of America's best known and most powerful community organizer while watching Riddick. Susan Wands conveys the weight of the problems which face Ellis's wife Mary.

There isn't much weight here. St. Germain relies on the audience's pre-knowledge of the history out of which these events arose. I have provided a brief, minimal slice of it in the second paragraph here. The 95-minute one act play is constructed in a rickety fashion across too many brief scenes (I would estimate easily more than a dozen) which eventually make the play feel attenuated. The entire enterprise is facile. The solution to the problems in successfully achieving school desegregation as well as the rapprochement of Atwater and Ellis is so easily accomplished here that it defies credibility. (Consider the outrageous words of Ellis early on, and the citations of contemporaneous statements made by soon to be Senator Jesse Helms.) Furthermore, in the interest of promoting their rapprochement, Germain actually posits a moral relativity between Ellis's vicious, brutal and destructive words and actions, and Atwater's hatred of him because of them. Let's get a properly functioning compass here.

There is also a presidential election year agenda here which undermines the seeming purity of intention and conciliatory good heartedness which make one wish that St. Germain had better resolved the play's limitations caused by his overly simplistic approach to his narrative. While admirably demonstrating the commonality and mutual goals and interest of black and white Americans, St. Germain posits that that commonality is only present among the poor. That, in actuality, there is another commonality out there, and that it is among rich white Americans and their less numerous rich black American counterparts. It is their interest in keeping poor (or, more broadly, non-privileged) Americans hating and fighting one another, so that they remain unable to work in cooperation to pursue their common interests. By 1971, the diehard segregationists in North Carolina and other southern states had become an economically costly embarrassment to their industrial leaders. Whatever its ingrained, unconstitutional social beliefs, the monetary titans of the South could not afford the continuing disruptions and boycotts that fighting school desegregation was causing. So, however one may regard the unprecedented concentration of wealth in our economy, the "realization" that it is the ruling rich who were promoting the conflict in 1971 North Carolina has been hauled in from left field to promote a 2012 political agenda.

Sadly, after the desegregation of the Hillside High School, most of the white students assigned left that school and moved to the largely white Durham County High Schools. Reality can be a bitch, but The Best of Enemies sure could use more of it, However, the progress that America has made in the last half century in the area of racial justice and equality has been spectacular. Clearly, the very much alive Ann Atwater and Bill Riddick deserve to be honored for their active roles in crusading for equality and justice as well as does the late C.P. Ellis, who was able to cast aside his hatred and make his own contributions to racial justice and harmony. There are lessons in the enduring friendship of Atwater and Ellis which can be of benefit to all of us.

Mark St. Germain was inspired to write this play by the non-fiction book "The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South" by Osha Gray Davidson. Although his play is lacking in needed complexity, depth and writing felicity, The Best of Enemies is a rousing, upbeat, feel good evening of theatre that many will find moving and entertaining. The production itself is crackerjack.

(Clever Little Lies, a new comedy by Joe DiPietro, had been scheduled to be performed at George Street Playhouse at this time. However, Marlo Thomas, who was to star in this production, withdrew in order to appear in a new television series. It was decided to postpone Clever Little Lies until Ms. Thomas is available. Artistic Director David Saint was able to re-assemble the cast and production team to recreate last summer's Barrington World Stage Company (Pittsfield, Massachusetts) world premiere production of The Best of Enemies.)

The Best of Enemies continues performances( Evenings: Tuesday - Saturday 8 pm; Sunday 7 pm (except 12/23)/ Matinees: Thursday (12/20 only), Saturday, Sunday 2 pm) through December 23, 2012, at the George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, N.J. 08901; Box Office: 732-246-7717; Online: www.GSPonline.org.

The Best of Enemies by Mark St. Germain; directed by Julianne Boyd

Cast
C.P. Ellis…………….John Bedford Lloyd
Ann Atwater………………….Aisha Hinds
Bill Riddick…………………..Don Guillory
Mary Ellis…………………...Susan Wands


Photo: T. Charles Erickson


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- Bob Rendell



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