Aisha Hinds as Ann Atwater and John Bedford Lloyd as C.P. Ellis face off earlier and often in Mark St. Germain's "The Best of Enemies." (photo: Kevin Sprague)
Julianne Boyd has done it again! This time she has directed as well as produced another world premiere of a powerful new play by Mark St. Germain that hits at the heart of the current state of race relations in this country by shining the spotlight on an unlikely pair of protagonists. But unlike Freud’s Last Session this is no imagined meeting or possible dialogue. The events depicted really happened and two of the people portrayed in the play were in the audience on opening night, lending their immediate veracity to a story that would be unbelievable if it were offered up as fiction.
Based on the 1996 book of the same name by Osha Gray Davidson (1954- ), The Best of Enemies, dramatizes the relationship between North Carolina civil rights activists Ann Atwater (1935- ) and Claiborne Paul “C.P.” Ellis (1927-2005). Not only is Atwater black and Ellis white, he was, at the start of their friendship, the Exalted Cyclops of the Durham Chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. They were brought together in 1971 by a brash young civil rights worker named Bill Riddick to chair a charrette – a ten-day community meeting – to begin the business of desegregating the Durham school system, something that had failed to happen in the 17 years since the Supreme Court decided Brown vs Board of Education.
Needless to say, it was not friendship at first sight. But it was, eventually, a match made in heaven. As the two worked together they realized what they had in common as members of the Southern working poor, trying to do the best by their children and their community. Ellis publicly ripped up his Klan card and joined Atwater in working for civil rights for all Americans. They became fast friends and remained so for the rest of his life. She eulogized at his funeral.
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