In Mark St. Germain’s “The Best of Enemies,” a venom-spouting KKK leader and a strong-willed civil rights activist collide in a story of racism and reconciliation.
As described by St. Germain and the Theatrical Outfit production running through Feb. 23, it’s a rather slim play, posing as a grandiose social statement.
In fact, I wouldn’t believe a word of it — except that it’s true.
Here are the facts: In the early ’70s, a Durham, N.C., Klan leader named C.P. Ellis and a forthright African-American woman named Ann Atwater presided over a community program intended to resolve the stalemate over the court-mandated integration of public schools. A young man named Bill Riddick served as mediator.
The unlikely friendship that transpired between an Exalted Cyclops of the KKK and a former domestic worker was documented in author Osha Gray Davidson’s book, “The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South,” published by the University of North Carolina Press in 2007.
St. Germain (“The God Committee,” “Freud’s Last Session”) apparently uses Davidson’s account as a template for the stage. Alas, his structure is so clunky and scattershot that it undermines the power and import of the drama. Innumerable snippet-like scenes unfold in the course of the 90-minute one act.
Outfit director Mira Hirsch puts together a strong company of actors (Bruce Evers as C.P., Elisabeth Omilami as Ann, Enoch King as Riddick, Lala Cochran as C.P.’s wife). But in the end, they can’t muster the passion to overcome the inherent flaws of the inert script. The play sags where it ought to soar.
St. Germain leaves no doubt about the bitter conflict between his black and white foes. We get that in the vicious language of C.P., whom Evers imbues with the world-weariness of Willy Loman. Omilami finds a bit of comedy to the part of Ann, whose fearlessness masks a tender underside. But she could be better.
As the middleman, King adds a smidgen of straight-man humor, although his character is the least fleshed out of the group. Likewise, Cochran doesn’t have much to work with, but in her period costumes (by Linda Patterson) and wig, she captures the physical ennui of a silently suffering ’70s housewife — smoking nervously, quietly intervening, dealing with the duality of personal tragedy and public ire.
With his flowing red robes and mysterious phone calls, C.P. is a puppet to a legacy of hatred and a power structure that manipulates and destroys. In choosing the right side, he loses nearly everything. Too bad the subtleties of his struggles are lost here.
Nuance is not St. Germain’s strong suit. He paints in broad strokes. Yet except for Evers, these solid actors seem to be holding back. Their restraint is admirable, but overall they seem a bit tentative.
Kat Conley’s multilevel set, which shines a light on the signposts of the plot, is handsome to look at. It also serves as an unintentional metaphor for the herky-jerky contours of the play. In Atlanta, in the year 2014, we are well versed in the heavy-freighted struggles of the past, the ongoing ugliness, the need for healing. And we expect better.
The late Studs Terkel said Davidson’s history was the long-awaited response to D.W. Griffith’s Klan-worshipping “The Birth of a Nation,” and that the relationship of Ann and C.P. was “one of the most moving love stories I’ve ever come across.” Too bad we don’t get that here.
“The Best of Enemies”
Grade: C -
7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays. 2:30 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays. Also, 2:30 p.m. Feb. 6. Through Feb. 23. $20-$35. Theatrical Outfit. 84 Luckie St. N.W., Atlanta. 1-877-725-8849, theatricaloutfit.org.
Bottom line: Serves history poorly.