Best of Enemies

By Mark St. Germain

Based on the Book by Osha Gray Davidson

Directed by Timothy Gregory

Produced by Provision Theater

Small Victories can have a Big Impact

The story of how a North Carolina Klan leader in the 1970s reluctantly joined forces with a black civil rights activist to improve public schools, wound up befriending her, realized their mutual enemy in an oppressive economic system, and renounced the KKK in favor of a union has obvious appeal for the Christian Left. But what makes it amazing is that it’s true. Mark St. Germain’s 2012 adaptation of the book of the same name by Osha Gray Davidson is a chamber play which pulls no punches in portraying the depraved hatred of white supremacy and the resulting anger among African-Americans who endured the desegregation struggle. But today, when bigotry has once again reverted to its raw form amid economic tensions and strengthened opposition, the production of Best of Enemies at Provision Theater is a welcome bit of reasonable optimism.

C.P. Ellis (Rod Armentrout) and Ann Atwater (Felicia P. Fields). Photos by Simon Sorin.

The play opens with C.P. Ellis (Rod Armentrout), mechanic and Cyclops, proclaiming to his followers his intention, fifteen years after Brown v. Board of Education, to keep Durham schools segregated. We then see Ann Atwater (Felicia P. Fields), his arch nemesis, declare her dedication to finally getting the federal law enforced. Bill Riddick (Randle Michael), a representative from the Department of Education, and a black North Carolinian, has recently arrived to oversee the long-delayed integration of Durham’s school district, but he surprises Ellis and Atwater by inviting them both to a public meeting. The charrette, he tells them, will help them to identify their common goals and find a way of working toward them. Ellis is incredulous—the whole point of his activities is to avoid having to deal with people like Atwater or co-operate with the federal government, and he turns Riddick down with undisguised threats of violence. Atwater is equally skeptical. The KKK isn’t a group of concerned citizens who see things differently, they’re a terrorist group for whom perpetual violence against African-Americans is a goal in itself. But Ellis’s puppet-masters on the city council, recognizing that the feds won’t just go away, instruct him to attend in hope of influencing the charrette, if not outright subverting it, and Riddick convinces Atwater that at least attending is necessary to make her case that more intervention is required.

Ann Atwater (Felicia P. Fields), Bill Riddick (Randle Michael), and C.P. Ellis (Rod Armentrout)

The first meetings don’t go well. Indeed, the most difficult part of St. Germain’s script is getting Ellis to open up just a crack, so the rest of his conversion can follow. Fields and Michael’s performances give Armentrout a lot to work with. Michael makes Bill Riddick brash and kind of annoying, but he’s unpredictable, and repeatedly knocks Ellis off his game. Fields succeeds in portraying Atwater as someone even Ellis has to respect. She has a snappy retort for every insult and lie, as well as a talent for succinctly getting to the truth of the matters most important to her, and displays great courage in confronting him. Tosha Fowler also gives a sympathetic performance as Mary Ellis, C.P.’s wife. Though a product of her time and place, Mary never liked the Klan, and C.P. feels guilty for burdening her with having to care for their developmentally disabled son while he focuses on politics. As the boy and his mother’s conditions worsen, C.P. comes to realize that he isn’t really getting anything out of his current masters. Once C.P.’s defenses are down, Armentrout expertly depicts a man who is isolated and in turmoil, it’s just those early moments that I wish had been given more focus in the script.

Ann Atwater (Felicia P. Fields) and C.P. Ellis (Rod Armentrout)

A major virtue of St. Germain’s script is that it puts Atwater on equal footing with Ellis. Though she changes less than he does, this is her story as much as his. She is never obliged to indulge C.P., but she does have to be convinced to abandon cynicism, and suffers for it. St. Germain’s desire to emphasize her wit led him to often end scenes abruptly after one of her scathing lines, which damages the play’s pace somewhat, but the audience enjoyed Fields’s performance and being given the time to react to what she said. Timothy Gregory’s direction guides us through a story that is uplifting, but he balances it with projections, designed by Ray Rehberg, of historical footage of anti-civil rights marches. The victory here is on a personal level, and even though we know how the story ends going in to it, what is happening in the background provides a constant source of tension. Best of Enemies presents a small change in the world, but makes that change count. The mature handling of the presentation makes it honest, and therefore, effective in serving Provision’s mission of sharing a story of hope, reconciliation, and redemption.

Recommended

Jacob Davis

3jacob.davis@gmail.com

Reviewed May 1, 2016

For more information, see Best of Enemies’ page on Theatre in Chicago.

Playing at Provision Theater, 1001 W Roosevelt Rd, Chicago. Tickets are $30, with discounts for seniors, students, military, and groups; to order, call 312-445-0066 or visit provisiontheater.org. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8:00 pm and Sunday at 3:00 pm through June 5. Running time is ninety minutes with no intermission.