Celebration Arts production of Mark St. Germain’s “Best of Enemies” is full of vigor and energy — the word that comes to mind is explosive. Two characters — a white racist named “C.P. Ellis” (Chris Lamb) and a black civil rights activist named “Ann Atwater” (Voress Franklin) are murderously hateful. They are barely kept in check by “Bill Riddick” (Maszaba Carter), a professional facilitator and community organizer. Occasionally C.P. is kept in check by his wife, “Mary Ellis” (Amy Williams), but not very often; at least not until the end of the play.
The story is based on real characters, circa 1971 in Durham, North Carolina (based on the book “Best of Enemies” by Osha Gray Davidson.) Even if were completely fictional, the story has the ring of truth — a composite of all the moments of grief and anger and fear that human beings are capable of. I saw it first hand growing up outside of Detroit in the 70s.
The setting is minimal — threadbare really. When one considers how much big-ness is packed onto that tiny stage, with only a folding table, a couple of chairs, some old phones — that’s when it really stands out how really good the theater is at what it does.
Without giving away too much, what the plays reveals is how two people who would, if they could, would have ripped each other limb from limb, come to grips with their anger, and establish a working relationship, and eventually a mutual respect.
One could say the play is “about” racism, which is not untrue. But for me the play was about identity. There is a moment in the play when C.P. Ellis relates that, prior to meeting Ann Atwater, the defining moment of his life was been initiated into the KKK, and subsequently becoming a Grand Cyclops. For Ann Atwater, the “moment” was the revelation of how decades of emotional torment and heartbreak lead to the development of a fiery rage against the political forces of oppression.
What helps to redefine the identity of both characters is the acceptance that each of them has a distinct history, a perspective, and something to contribute. The catalysts are a patient, ambitious community organizer, and a wife who sees the good in a man that is really twisted around a flawed set of prejudices and fears.
Watching this happen on stage is good theater.