ORLANDO — In Mark St. Germain’s play “The Best of Enemies,” based on the true story of efforts in 1971 to desegregate the schools in Durham, N.C., civil rights activist Ann Atwater is firm, unwilling to back down, and pulls no punches when it comes to telling it like it is.
As played so radiantly by Avis-Marie Barnes, Ann is an easy character to like, and relate to, and cheer for. She’s living in a community where whites outnumber blacks, where the majority has no shame about trying to keep any possible vestige of segregation alive in the era following passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. When confronted by Klansmen spewing forth the most vile racist hate imaginable, Ann doesn’t back down, is not the least bit intimidated, and gives it right back to them. You’re rooting for Ann as soon as she comes on stage.
The same is true for Bill Riddick, played by Corey Allen. He’s a federal mediator sent down to Durham to by the U.S. Department of Education to help work out a solution. Riddick is well-educated, politically savvy, and infinitely patient. When he stops at a gas station that happens to be owned by a hate-filled member of the Klan, C.P. Ellis, Riddick is casual and collected, and never loses his cool — even when Watson makes atrocious comments about Riddick’s race.
The sides are drawn, and there’s no question where our sympathies lie here: we want Ann and Riddick to succeed, we want to see Ellis badly defeated. Despite all the complexities that went into the question of how to get a white-majority community in the South to accept desegregated schools, “Best of Enemies” feels like a straight-forward tale of heroes and villains. We can sit back in our seats and comfortably scorn Watson’s bigotry, and smile when sassy Ann tells him what she thinks of him.
There are three aspects of “The Best of Enemies” that make it a deeply moving, and very memorable piece of theater. Despite the conclusions an audience is likely to draw in the opening, “Best of Enemies” is not a simplistic and one-dimensional look at one long-forgotten moment in the Civil Rights movement. It’s far more complex and richly layered than you have any reason to initially expect.
Second, it may sound hard to believe, but this is actually a very funny play — not in terms of the subject matter, but rather in the often hilarious way that two such stubborn and pig-headed characters react to this situation.
And the final way that this play succeeds so brilliantly is something that the Orlando Shakespeare Theater brings to its current production: the casting of Richard B. Watson as Ellis.
While the performances by Barnes and Allen are wonderful, there can’t be any bigger challenge for an actor than portraying someone so deeply hateful that it borders on cliche. Ellis is a proud member of the Klan, he is largely uneducated, runs a tiny gas station, and seems ignorant, mean-spirited and completely beyond repair. It’s so rare that any of us come face to face with a C.P. Ellis anymore in our daily existence that the character seems like a stock villain, meant to drive us that much faster into the arms of Ann and Riddick, to raise our passions for their cause by showing how hideously vile the other side is.
And yet, that’s not where the play goes. Where it does take us is into some very unpredictable waters that ultimately make it astonishingly moving.
It all starts when Riddick comes up with a clever idea: to stage a charette, or to form a steering committee that brings together the various viewpoints in the community on the issue of desegregation, allowing everyone’s viewpoint to be heard. He asks Ann and Ellis, two bitter enemies, to co-chair the steering committee and do all the leg work — advertising the committee, organizing meetings, and so on. Since Ann and Ellis both want their side to be heard, they reluctantly agree to work together.
The results are wonderfully comical. There’s only so much racial antagonism that two people can hurl at one another on a regular basis, so they begin to act more like two petulant children who want the best toys in the playground — particularly Ellis. In a real tribute to Watson’s talent as an actor, the character that started out so filled with hate, and so proud to boast it, begins to change. He takes his responsibilities with the steering committee quite seriously. He’s less patient with his fellow white bigots who just want their side honored, and that’s it. And in an odd, but entirely believable way, he starts to treat Ann differently.
So much of the situation starts to change for another reason: Ellis’ wife, Mary (played by Anna Carol). As Ellis gets more intricately involved in the steering committee, his old Klan buddies become angry. His gas station loses customers. Mary is getting fed up with feeling like social outcasts. But at the same time, a trip to the doctor reveals that she now has much greater problems to deal with.
As Ellis is suddenly confronted when a series of crises that have nothing to do with race — his failing business, his wife’s illness — he finds himself vulnerable and lost. There may be few more poignant and moving moments than watching the way Ann begins, against her own better judgment, to take on an almost motherly approach to this increasingly broken man.
“The Best of Enemies” is not what it sounds like from the description — a civil rights activist takes on a Klansman. It offer so much more — including a powerful story about redemption. And it’s a great credit to Watson’s skills that Ellis becomes such a moving character, despite how much we detest him at first. He brings a rich amount of complexity to a character that starts off looking one-dimensional. And with the superb assistance of Barnes, they fully capture the absolute absurdity of life when two bitter enemies discover that by sitting down and talking to one another, they have a lot more in common than they think.
“The Best of Enemies” is being performed in the Goldman Theater at the Lowndes Shakespeare Center in Orlando, now through Nov. 16. It’s one of the best productions in this region in a long time.
The play is being performed Tuesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. The Lowndes Shakespeare Center is at 812 E. Rollins St. in Loch Haven Park. Tickets are $10-45.
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