by Hugh Hunter
Over the years I have found most plays and movies about race relations to be preachy and cloying, but I was pleasantly surprised with the message of “Best of Enemies” (2011), now running at Allens Lane Theater.
Written by Mark St. Germain, the play is a dramatization of the best-seller by Osha Gray Davidson of the same name. The book describes events that took place during the school desegregation battle in Durham, NC, in 1971.
In “Best” Bill Riddick (Edward Washington) is a federal agent who asks Ann Atwater and C.P. Ellis to co-chair a school committee. Ann is an angry civil rights organizer, and C.P. is an “Exalted Cyclops” in the Ku Klux Klan! Right off you see both are fierce and fully capable of murder.
But in a comical way they start to work together. C.P. is then shunned by the Klansmen and loses his business. His wife, Mary (Shelli Pentimall), attempts suicide and is finally elected leader of a largely African-American janitors’ union.
Wow! Even Hollywood with its penchant for redemptive morality tales would have trouble dreaming up that plot. And knowing the story is factually true does not diminish the difficulty in staging this improbable sequence of events.
Yet the Allens Lane production succeeds. Germain’s script is a mere chronology of episodes from the book, and director Nancy Kreider’s bluesy music helps smooth over its jerky progression. But the main reason her show comes off is that her main actors are just sensationally good.
Because of them you believe in the reality of Ann and C.P. Ellis. In Zuhairah McGill’s portrait of Ann, you see someone whose raucous humor is a way of coping with anger and pain. In a transformative moment of remorse, her Ann really seems to be crying. In old age Ann, now slow moving with palsied hands, is warm and reconciled.
Michael Tamin Yurcaba did not begin acting until his 40s, but there is such a thing as a “natural.” In the early going his C.P. Ellis scares the pants off you. Then you see fear and uncertainty creep into his face. In a touching moment he tells Ann how much he misses the Klan because they made him feel he was worth something.
In his final scene C.P. delivers the play’s message. Now dressed in janitor’s overalls he argues to the union rank and file that race is just something power brokers use to keep poor people disunited. That is preachy, too, but it is refreshing to hear a point of view so sorely neglected.
You do not hear it in the average play or movie about race relations, where you never get the sense that universal issues of class structure are also at stake. Nor do you see it at the American voting booth, where so many people keep voting against their own economic interest.
Allens Lane is located at Allens Lane near McCallum Street “Best of Enemies” will run through Jan 31. Reservations available at 215-248-0546.