The Best of Enemies by Mark St. Germain, based on the book by Osha Gray Davidson. Directed by Julianne Boyd.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"Where is the gray section of town?"
Black and white has been the issue of the season. This is the third play in a series and, like the other two, it presents issues of the mind, soul and heart to be experienced, witnessed and examined. Like the other two it is a premiere of sorts, this time a world premiere. And more so then ever before this summer, the topic of "gray" is the subject at hand.
Luckily Julianne Boyd is adept at this shade of human experience. At Barrington Stage she has brought other shades of gray into luminous being in the past: "Tea" was one such event; "West Side Story" another; "Follies" even more brilliant than we had ever seen it before. With "The Best of Enemies" she transforms the gray neighborhood of southern race relations into precious silver. This true story, brought dramatically to life by playwright Mark St. Germain, is one that touches our senses of liberalism and tolerance and decency, steals them from us and returns them in edible, bite-sized pieces reconceived as hope, faith, and humanity.
The story is simple: a hateful white man in Durham, North Carolina - C.P. Ellis, Grand Cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan - is confronted by Ann Atwater, an uneducated, militant black woman on the issue of desegregation of the Durham schools. She is mean; he is mean. He is intolerant to the point of demanding a black man clean the knob of his radio with an oil-soaked cloth just because he touched it. She is intolerant in that no white manís opinion is to be considered, no white manís touch is to be tolerated. He mouths off; so does she. She threatens; he does likewise. He prefers an automatic weapon and she has her shiv.
In about 98 minutes covering about three years in time plus an epilogue closer to the present, these two people travel a vast amount of space and time, a relative few inches, but they are as impressive a journey as if they traveled a hundred million light years. Itís a remarkable journey piloted by a talented director with an engagingly talented playwright co-pilot. With the aid of four remarkably good actors, some music and a talented design team, this brief look at a portion of our national history turns into moving drama evoking sympathy, tears and just a few giant personal steps toward the recognition of a single human race. In the words of Howard Dietz, "thatís entertainment."
Aisha Hinds plays Ann Atwater. In her hands Ann is so very much a living presence that Hinds smiles at the curtain calls rendered her virtually a stranger. In movement, stance, accent, posturing and attitude she was so very much a living breathing entity that it really was hard to envision the woman in any other form. Hinds is a stunning actress, a personage with the ability to completely inhabit another body and mind. Her monologues and her scenes had equal strength and credulity. Her stage accent never wavered or altered. Only once, in a tender scene played in a hospital visiting room, did her character become a more standard southern black mammy and then only with a rationale beyond explaining: there was a need for Ann to be something other than who she was and Hinds found her way into this transition. Brilliant acting.
As C.P. Ellis John Bedford Lloyd is easily the equal of his co-star Hinds. Put an asterisk next to each descriptive accolade above along with an asterisk right here and you have an honest appraisal of his performance. Additionally his scenes with the lovely Mary Ellis of actress Susan Wands, were touched with an unexpected tenderness. His drunk scene and its ugly result were played with an undeconstructed honesty that had an audience horrifyingly enthralled. Their combination hush and gasp told the story. Lloyd also shares Hinds ability to maintain a difficult accent without wavering and that makes him so much more believable throughout.
As for Wands, her role has been underwritten. We see things and know more about them much later. We hear things and the responses donít echo any knowledge weíve gotten and so they drift away. She is the only supporting character in this play and we need more of her to expect more from her.
On the other hand, Bill Riddick, an antagonizer/organizer played wonderfully by Clifton Duncan, is a major character, not the odd-man-out corner of a three-way relationship. He has come to Durham to start the process of integration. He inadvertently turns into the catalyst for a relationship that has no basis in reality. Duncan acts with an ingenuousness that just suits his character to a tee. His only weakness is his transition into old age in the final sequence.
Visually the production is a technical shoulder shrug: things keeps moving and imagery is used to give historical and geographical context to the scenes on panels that change their locations on the stage. This design work is the step-child of David M. Barber who created the scenic look and Scott Pinkney whose lighting design has allowed everything to be visible as needed. Kristina Luckaís costumes are an interesting collection of period clothing and recycled curtains. Brad Berridge has done a remarkable job with his sound design work, a theatrical show in itself.
It is Boyd, the director, who works all of this raw material - script, designers, actors - into a seamless whole. She moves her people through the mud of special effects to produce a powerful relationship that no marriage can supercede, that no critical urge can falter, no cynic disparage. This may well be her finest work to date.
Aisha Hinds as Ann; photo: Kevin Sprague
John Bedford Lloyd as Ellis; photo: Kevin Sprague
Hinds, Clifton Duncan, Lloyd; photo: Kevin Sprague
The Best of Enemies plays on the Mainstage at Barrington Stage Company at the Union Street Theatre, just west of North Street in Pittsfield, MA through August 6. For information and tickets call the box office at 413-236-8888.