If it weren’t based on a true story, the play The Best of Enemies might be a little tough to swallow. That a Klansman and a civil rights activist could make peace and become friendly in the Deep South seems a stretch. But when said characters are brought to life by performers such as Bruce Evers and Elisabeth Omilami, then the illogical seems more plausible.
Running through February 23 at Theatrical Outfit, Mark St. Germain’s The Best of Enemies is based on Osha Gray Davidson’s 2007 book of the same name. Evers stars as Claiborne Paul Willis, also known as C.P., the leader of a local KKK chapter, while Omilami plays Ann Atwater, an African American woman deeply involved in grassroots work.
They are brought together in 1971 by Bill Riddick (Enoch King), a federal mediator who has been dispatched by the Department of Education to oversee school desegregation in Durham, North Carolina, and patch together a steering committee full of contrasting viewpoints. As expected, the ensuing meetings don’t run smoothly — C.P. and Ann are almost always at each other’s throats. Over time, though, they at least develop a better understanding of each other. Both are poor, for instance, and being so has shaped much of their lives and decisions.
What seems on the surface like it could be a heartwarming After School Special — where everyone is a better person at play’s end by meeting someone different — is elevated by Germain’s script, which clearly understands the nature of class and how the times may or may not be a-changing. As directed by Mira Hirsch, former artistic director of Jewish Theatre of the South and now an artistic associate at Theatrical Outfit, Enemies has a real sense of time and place. Even after the Civil Rights Act seven years earlier, many of the establishments in town are still white only.
Though it sounds dark and heavy — and it can be — the production finds room for some humor. Ann’s character doesn’t back down to C.P., and stands her ground with a man she has every reason to be afraid of.
Enemies proves to be a solid fit for the kind of work Theatrical Outfit is known for. A compact production, it clocks in at just over an hour and a half. It’s often presented as a series of short snippets cutting back and forth from C.P.’s kitchen and Ann’s home and then to their joint scenes together. That device, however, isn’t altogether successful — it occasionally gives the production a stiff, mechanical feel. And while Germain has captured the era and people, there’s no denying that a meatier, more challenging work could have come of this, considering the complexity of the time and situation.
Hirsch’s two main characters here fortunately become dynamic forces. Omilami, one of the city’s more underrated talents, is in particularly fine form here, sassy and defiant, firm in her beliefs. Evers, too, brings great physicality to the role of C.P. He’s not afraid to let us see — or hear — the character’s racist side as well.
The supporting players don’t have the complexity of the other two. Yet King’s understated Riddick certainly works, sandwiched between two larger personalities on either side. Lala Cochran plays Mary Ellis, C.P.’s wife. The role isn’t very well developed, but the character has a few choice moments, including a nice scene with Ann late in the game.
The Best of Enemies isn’t the sharpest or most comprehensive of plays, but in its own quiet way it works, proving timely and debate worthy. It’s a lot like the recent Lombardi at Aurora Theatre — a little undernourished narratively, but best welcomed as a star vehicle for Evers and Omilami.