Can the seemingly impossible become possible? The A.D. Players premiere of Best of Enemies, Mark St. Germain’s play about the real-life friendship that develops between an African American woman and a grand cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan, seeks to show, yes, it can.
Set in Durham, North Carolina, in 1971, Ann Atwater, a single mother of two and grassroots Civil Rights activist, meets Claiborne Paul (C.P.) Ellis, a married father to a son with disabilities who happens to be president of his local KKK chapter. There is a crisis over the desegregation of a local high school, and a federal mediator from the Department of Education hopes to minimize conflict by forming a steering committee headed by locals. Atwater and Ellis both agree to serve. While they initially clash, both come to realize that they have more in common than either supposed.
It’s no accident that the play is being performed during the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday that commemorates the Civil Rights icon's birth, and the events feel thoroughly timely. “People are going to be surprised at how even though it's set in 1971, it feels like it could be happening today," says director Kim Tobin-Lehl. "It doesn't feel dated. To me, it feels really relevant.”
While many current events make the subject matter feel important, the racist language used by C.P. could be difficult to hear. “I think the hardest thing for me was the vernacular, especially the racial slurs," says Kevin Michael Dean, who portrays C.P. "I had to step out of my own tendency to want to be liked and to want to be nice, because this man is not nice nor does he care if he’s liked. Or rather, he only cares if he is liked by his in-group, which is the Klan.”
Although C.P.s’ racism divides them, the play’s message is about finding common ground. Much of Ann and C.P.'s eventual friendship arises from their deep love for their families, as well as their economic status. Alice M. Gatling, who plays the role of Ann, says that class is “a big part actually in what happens in the play and how these two individuals begin to navigate, and is where they start to find their common ground.”
The two lead characters are well-supported by the characters of Department of Education mediator Bill Riddick, played by Joseph Palmore, and C.P’s wife, Mary, played by Christy Watkins. Tobin-Lehl says that these two characters help give Ann and C.P. “the things that serve to motivate their changes.”
In real life, these changes also endured beyond the time spent serving on the school committee, with Atwater and Ellis remaining devoted to each other until his death in 2005. Tobin-Lehl finds this lifelong commitment to each other really moving. “It makes me think about the way I live my life on a day-to-day basis," she says. "Anybody can get involved in that heat-of-a-moment issue, but how many people meet someone in a serious event in their life and become friends forever? That's really a powerful thing to speak to how you live.”
With that realization, Best of Enemies, while grappling with issues of race and class, also offers hope. “One person, one step at a time—that little inch—we can change things," says Gatling. "And this play shows you that that little hope can grow into something bigger.”
Thru Feb. 4. Tickets from $20. Jeannette and L. M. George Theater, 5420 Westheimer Rd. 713-526-2721. More info and tickets at adplayers.org.