By Kay Kipling
A Ku Klux Klan member and a black civil rights activist coming to terms during a pitched battle over school desegregation in 1971 North Carolina? It might sound farfetched if it didn’t happen to be true, as is demonstrated in the current production at Florida Studio Theatre’s Gompertz Theatre, Mark St. Germain’s Best of Enemies.
The play, directed by Richard Hopkins, opens with the Klan member, C.P. Ellis (Sheffield Chastain), spewing forth some of the vilest racism about the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that you’re likely to hear onstage, setting the tone for the frankness of the play and showing the width of the chasm between Ellis and Ann Atwater (Stephanie Weeks). The two are both working class, minimally educated, and can’t stand one another, trying not to pass on the same sidewalks of their hometown of Durham. But a community organizer named Bill Riddick (Kevin Morrow) is a cunning enough manipulator to see that only by each having a chance to voice their feelings is there any hope of bringing the community together to decide how best to accomplish integration. Remarkably, he gets the two to work on a charette—a word neither has even heard of—to come up with a feasible plan.
St. Germain wrote the play in short, quick scenes that mix tense drama with some welcome humor (for example, in an early scene that shows the two noisily and competitively stapling and collating survey papers). Gradually we get to see another side of C.P., at home with his wife, Mary (Amanda Duffy). The two married young and have a disabled son; their marriage is far from perfect, but it is revealed that C.P. is capable of affection, as well as fear and anger.
Anger is the dominant mode for Weeks’ character; and while it’s understandable, given Atwater’s circumstances as a poor, single African-American mother, the role can still feel one note at times. Everything Atwater says is said loudly and quickly, but perhaps that’s the way it really was for this woman fighting her way in a world with the deck stacked against her.
Chastain’s character has the longest journey here, and he gives a believable rendition of a man who truly changes, thanks not only to the charette but to the words of his wife. She’s the one who first realizes that what really matters is not the past or even the present, but the future of their children and grandchildren.
Best of Enemies reminds us of how amazing it is what can happen when people do the hardest thing: talk and listen to each other and then, actually, change. The play continues through Jan. 27; for tickets call 366-9000 or go to floridastudiotheatre.org.