Monday, January 14, 2013

theatre review THE BEST OF ENEMIES, George Street Playhouse, December 16

A sudden opening in George Street Playhouse's already announced season could have had a horrible ending with an under rehearsed, quickly put together production.  However, sometimes a potentially bad situation can turn out to be good in the end as fortunately the Barrington Stage Company's recent production of The Best of Enemies was able to be remounted at George Street with most of its cast intact in a stellar production that just concluded a month long run.

Based on the best-selling book by Osha Gray Davidson, The Best of Enemies tells the true story of the relationship that develops between the African American civil rights activist Ann Atwater and C.P. Ellis, a Grand Master of the KKK.  They are two people at odds, brought together in 1971 during the court ordered desegregation of the Durham, NC schools.  The Best of Enemies is a play of prejudice on both sides of an issue but also one that shows when two people are fighting for what they believe in, and are forced to face their enemy head on, they start to realize they are both very similar in the passion behind their beliefs.  Of course there is good and bad on both sides of the issue with both characters passionately backing up their beliefs.

John Bedford Lloyd and Aisha Hinds
Written by Mark St. Germain and directed by Julianne Boyd, who also directed the production at the Barrington Stage Company, the play focuses on the time when Atwater and Ellis were basically coerced by a federal mediator from the Board of Education to sit on the steering committee in order to represent the views of the community around the segregation of the schools.  On one side you have a woman speaking up for justice and equal education but also someone who has no love for those on the other side who promote white supremacy.  The old saying "keep your friends close, and your enemies closer" came to mind why the play was unfolding as both Atwater and Ellis are forced to deal directly with their opponent and in doing so end up understanding each other better.  But this is also a tale of redemption and how people can grow and ultimately change by understanding where their enemy is coming from, and in doing so, can actually forge a very unexpected friendship.  It is inspiring and gripping with all of the ugliness of the events intact and also a compelling story that makes you sit up and pay attention to real events that happened just forty years ago.

Aisha Hinds, Don Guillory and John Bedford Lloyd
The production couldn't have found two better actors to portray the two lead characters. Aisha Hinds is Atwater and John Bedford Lloyd is Ellis.  Hinds perfectly plays the struggling single mom who has no fear of men, let alone Ellis.  She is more raw and emotional than Lloyd as Ellis but also plays a character who has much more to lose.  She is also playing someone much older then she really is and also one with some physical difficulties, which she never lets slip throughout the entire play.  Hinds expertly plays the skeptical parts of the character as well as easily gets across the natural humor that can come with being placed in an uncomfortable situation.

Lloyd on the other hand has more of a journey and a harder character to play since he has to not only play a racist but one that has to not only win over Atwater but the audience with the journey his character takes.  He pulls no punches in his delivery of the racist language, hateful looks and body language of Ellis and fortunately St. Germain and Boyd aren't also afraid to be up front and direct with making sure we clearly see the danger that lurks in this hateful man.  He is frustrated and desperate to fight something that he believes will negatively impact his life and the entire nation.   However, the three have also crafted a character that we see change in front of us and start to empathize with, something that we, just like Atwater, must witness unfold before us to not only understand this man but also to help us better understand ourselves.

Don Guillory is the mediator Bill Riddick and he is presented as a black man who is cocky but intelligent, which rubs both Atwater and Ellis the wrong way.  But he knows that both of these community "leaders" are people who are strong in their beliefs and he realizes the best way to make progress is to bring Atwater and Ellis together so they can realize how alike they really are.  Guillory is all smug and passionate as well about his beliefs and how his idea ultimately makes things better but well directed by Boyd to not overpower the two leads.  Susan Wands is Ellis' long suffering wife Mary and is just as sympathetic in her portrayal as the other characters.  She is presented as racist as well, but one who more quickly understands the shortcomings of her views when confronted with a personal issue.

The play is presented in linear fashion and in doing so makes the audience better understand why someone like Ellis believes the things he does and why Atwater is so passionate as well.  I was even pleasantly shocked that I cared so much for Ellis as much as I did which can be attributed as much to St. Germain's writing as the performance from Lloyd and the direction from Boyd.  And the reason I cared so much for him is that he was presented as a real person, one who believed certain things but when forced to meet his "enemy" head on starts to doubt his believes, his upbringing and the people around him.  He changes, but so does Atwater, who is also presented just as passionately and real as Ellis.  In doing so St. Germain has created a cathartic experience for the audience to take the journey with these two characters.  Knowing that these two people were real, and that the unlikely events of the play actually happened takes the whole play to an even higher level.  That is why this is a play that I believe will have a very healthy life in regional theatres as it is a small play with a small cast but with a big message that makes you believe in the power that people can change for the better.

Highlights from the George Street Production:

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