It is off-putting as an audience member to be thrust immediately into a Ku Klux Klan meeting as a play opens. It is further cringe-inducing to be implicated in that meeting as the leader addresses the audience directly while cheering with graphic and vitriolic specificity “the hero who killed Martin Lucifer Coon.”
But Mark St. Germain’s new play THE BEST OF ENEMIES, now receiving a powerfully unapologetic staging at The George Street Playhouse, thrives on the very tension between alienation and implication. We may seem distant from the hatred spewed on stage, but the show’s intimacy—addressing the auditorium as part of its production—reminds us that although the play is set in 1971, these people and these fears are closer than we might like to think. The play offers a penetrating gaze into racial hatred and, ultimately, into the hearts and souls of those hiding behind such hatred.
The Klan leader at the play’s open is C.P. Ellis (John Bedford Lloyd), the Durham, North Carolina, KKK’s “Exulted Cyclops” and its most vociferous soldier. A prominent and influential man about town, C.P. is as revered by the white community as he is detested by the black. He embodies fully all the hatred and bitterness associated with the white supremacist ethos: the blacks, Jews, Catholics, and commie unions are taking over the country and alienating the patriotic, God-fearing white man from his heritage and pride.
After the initial Klan meeting, we see him greeted at his service station by a black community organizer, Bill Riddick (Don Guillory, borrowing a few mannerisms from a certain other prominent black community organizer), who has come to Durham to help facilitate a solution to the town’s racial tension. Riddick invites C.P. to a community meeting. C.P. laughs him off, and insists Riddick wipe his black germs off the radio knob he touched.
C.P.’s counterpart in Durham is Ann Atwater (Aisha Hinds), a firebrand black woman—nicknamed “Roughhouse Annie” by her community—who speaks out loudly in word and action against the racial injustice of Durham. Middle-aged and calloused from years of fighting, Ann might be a bit cynical about the progress of the equality movement, but she is by no means fatigued. The first time we see her is in city hall demanding an audience with the mayor to discuss how the town is going to honor the death of Dr. King. She is a powerful foil to C.P., unequivocally respected by her community and unafraid to stand toe-to-toe with those who revile her most, and seemingly incapable of being intimidated.
Riddick has come to Durham to help address the racial tension by way of education inequalities, and decides that the best strategy is to hold a series of community meetings that have Ann and C.P. as the across-the-aisle leaders. Both eventually end their resistance to the idea and begrudgingly acquiesce to working together, each motivated by protecting his or her community’s best interests against those of the other.
The Klan leader and the civil rights soldier come together in the spirit of mutual disgust, but as the play progresses we watch as each of their communities slowly abandon them as traitors, and Ann and C.P. are left with little allegiances other than the most tenuous one between each other.
In a taut ninety minutes, THE BEST OF ENEMIES traces a remarkable amount of progress and evolution as its two principal characters evolve from the most obstinate extremes through shades of complexity and nuance that would seem unthinkable in the play’s opening moments. An insightful study of social politics by way of a deep psychological examination of two of society’s most polar opposites, the play is as moving as it is discerning, managing to make us care for these people as much as for their community’s plight.
While St. Germain’s writing and Julianne Boyd’s direction are each crisp and efficient, the lion’s share of credit for the play’s power goes to its two remarkable leads. Aisha Hinds gives a performance of such vigor and investment that she must be physically and emotionally exhausted after every show. Ann begins the play as jaded and as resistant to Riddick as C.P., having spent a lifetime battling injustice with little to show for it, and so the progress we see during THE BEST OF ENEMIES is strange and often wrenching to her; it requires her to deal with the devil incarnate, after all. Hinds shows us Ann’s struggles with fearless clarity. Ann can only help her community by opening the gates to her own beliefs and biases, and that passage has long been barred and defiantly guarded.
C.P.’s journey away from ideological commitment is even more harrowing than Ann’s, and John Bedford Lloyd captures wonderfully C.P.’s painful, halting progress towards acknowledging black struggle, recognizing black humanity, and most of all understanding the social strife that transcends skin color. The danger in this character is that his evolution will seem abrupt and forced, but Lloyd is too shrewd to allow that to happen. He shows us the cracks in his façade of hate and bombast during scenes at home with his ailing and worried wife (Susan Wands as a spot-on human counterpoint to C.P.’s KKK ideology), and lets that humanity slowly bleed into the public C.P. throughout the play. Midway through the play, C.P.’s offhand “sorry” to Ann evoked audible gasps from Friday’s audience, a gesture that seemed just as surprising to C.P. because Lloyd plays him with such a convincing sense of uncertain wandering. C.P. has traveled a great social distance to be sitting alone with a black woman, and Lloyd’s confidence comes through always in his character’s unsteadiness.
THE BEST OF ENEMIES is a play of immediacy and relevance, and George Street’s production does it all the justice it is due. Boyd’s brisk pacing, St. Germain’s snappy dialogue, and the inventive scenic and projection designs by David M. Barber move the play along with impressive efficiency, and the show includes plenty of laughs to temper the barrage of the heavy subject matter (it is a forgivable foible if a few laugh lines are a bit misplaced as to undercut some drama).
A period piece though it may be, THE BEST OF ENEMIES refuses to allow its audience to ignore its contemporary resonances, challenging us to recognize that ideological divides continue to distance us along social and political lines, and tasking its audience with recognizing the human face and struggles of those we are so quick to define as other.
THE BEST OF ENEMIES
Written by Mark St. Germain
Inspired by THE BEST OF ENEMIES by Osha Gray Davidson
Directed by Julianne Boyd
November 27 – December 23, 2012
George Street Playhouse
9 Livingston Avenue
New Brunswick, NJ, 08901