By Mark St. Germain. Based on the book by Osha Gray Davidson. Directed by Ian Farthing. A Pacific Theatre production. At Pacific Theatre on Saturday, February 29. Continues until March 21
Rick Colhoun’s music sets the scene even before the audience is in place and the lights go down. Initially limited to a dark and droning slide guitar, with echoes of Ry Cooder’s film soundtrack for Paris, Texas—which itself drew from the starkly beautiful sound of the guitar evangelist Blind Willie Johnson—it places us immediately in a moody zone that is neither black nor white, neither old nor new, but that’s clearly a place of memory and reflection.
It’s a good choice, even though there’s little that’s mythic or otherworldly in Mark St. Germain’s treatment of interracial combat and rapprochement in Durham, North Carolina, during the early 1970s. Based on Osha Gray Davidson’s nonfiction book The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South—which has also recently been turned into a feature film by director and writer Robin Bissell—it’s a vignette from the civil-rights movement that centres on the personal animosity between Ann Atwater, an African-American advocate for school integration, and C.P. Ellis, a white segregationist and high-ranking member of the local Ku Klux Klan.
To him, she’s less than human. To her, he’s the devil incarnate. And they could happily have killed each other until a charismatic black activist, Bill Riddick, somehow convinces them to cochair a charrette that’s intended to address the inadequacies, including racial tension, in the Durham school system.
Such things could apparently be done in 1971. Now? Maybe not so much, which is undoubtedly part of the reason why St. Germain wrote this play, and why Pacific Theatre is producing it here, at a time of heightened tension between white resource-industry workers and Indigenous land defenders. And it is, I think, a valuable contribution, as it stresses the importance of making a personal connection with the "other” as a way of defusing hate.
Telegraphed into a two-act play, Best of Enemies involves Atwater and Ellis discovering who they really are: humans trying to do the best for their children. This involves the white mechanic and the black former domestic servant recognizing that they have a common enemy in the class system, and beginning to understand their individual traumas. Ellis gets the bulk of the catharsis, however: his multiple sorrows include a developmentally delayed child and a wife who is bravely and quietly succumbing to cancer, and he gets to be spiritually reborn after a suicide attempt following her death. Atwater’s woes, in turn, follow a familiar blues archetype: she had a man, but he done her wrong. This is borderline generic, and the play would be stronger if Atwater’s character were more fully realized, if we heard more about the roots of her loss and caustic anger. Perhaps St. Germain, who’s white, felt that her story was not his to tell.
Celia Aloma, as Atwater, and Robert Salvador, as Ellis, are believable in director Ian Farthing’s straightforward treatment of St. Germain’s script. Salvador, having more to work with, is especially effective in first conveying the depth of Ellis’s racism, then showing his awakening.
Anthony Santiago, playing Riddick, captures the organizer’s wily humour, while Rebecca DeBoer, as Mary Ellis, embodies an unusual degree of quiet dignity. Best of Enemies is neither groundbreaking nor revelatory, but it’s warm, well-made, and a useful reminder that even the ugliest of hearts can change.