Stand up and be counted, show the world that you’re a man! Stand up and be counted and go with the Klu Klux Klan! We are a sacred brotherhood, who love our country too. We always can be counted on, when there’s a job to do.”
A chill went up and down my spine as I listened to the above words. They’re from a recording of a song sung by the National Knights of the Klu Klux Klan, played before the action begins in Mark St. Germain’s compelling play “The Best of Enemies,” at the George Street Playhouse until Sunday, December 23.
The song is an apt introduction to the astonishing dramatization of the very real events and unexpected shifts in behavior by the main characters in this play inspired by Osha Gray Davidson’s 1996 book of the same name.
That above mentioned chill is replaced by chagrin and then by cheers as we are made to feel as if we are involved participants in the volatile confrontations and subsequent unlikely relationship (and eventual friendship) forged between two formidable, disparate protagonists –– the black North Carolina civil rights activist Ann Atwater (Aisha Hinds) and the white “exalted cyclops” of the Durham Chapter of the Ku Klux Klan C.P. Ellis (John Bedford Lloyd).
The two diametrically opposing representatives of the future of racial relationships are reluctantly brought together when a state department of education representative (played by actor Don Guillory) persuades them to participate in a grant funded program to address racial issues in the Durham schools in 1971. Soon we are able to see the extent to which the two’s personal socio-political posturing and their inability to compromise — especially in the light of their own limiting and limited perspectives — has been a deterrent for progress.
This is a play that is as uncompromisingly punctuated with shockingly brutal rhetoric as it is also peppered with more funny, snappy, pungent dialogue than you generally get even in an all-out comedy. Most importantly, “The Best of Enemies” gets its heft from its seriously considered subject and from its underlying theme — the possibility and potential for transformation and change through thoughts, words and deeds, or to use a Christian metaphor, be born again.
A special cheer is in order for the George Street Theater for presenting this production that had its world premiere at the Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Massachusetts in July 2011 and returned there in October, under the direction of the Barrington’s Artistic Director Julianne Boyd.
Boyd, who has garnered praise for her artistic and executive leadership of the theater that she co-founded in 1995, achieved national attention with the development and production of William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin’s musical “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” which went on to great success on Broadway and helped to finance the acquisition of Barrington’s handsome year-round theater in Pittsfield.
It was also at Barrington Stage where St. Germain’s acclaimed play “Freud’s Last Session,” an imaginary meeting between Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis, had its premiere prior to its long run success Off Broadway as well as elsewhere.
There is nothing imaginary, however, about the meeting between Ann and C.P. in “The Best of Enemies,” which follow the unexpected path toward n alliance gradually paved between the two. If each, as we initially see them, is fueled by a shared and strongly committed hatred and prejudice for each other and for each other’s race, they are gradually revealed ready for a change of heart and hope. This occurs through a series of contentious meetings and by also confronting the issues that they have to deal with in their personal lives.
The play becomes much more than whether the contemptuously condescending C.P. can pull back from attacking Ann and what she represents, and whether he is motivated to reconsider his hate-filled rants at meetings with his fellow members of the K.K.K.
While these things are addressed, as is the embittered Ann’s past, the play brings us into the more personalized fray as C.P. has to deal with a serious health issue with his wife Mary (Susan Wands). Her instinct to be supportive to C.P. despite his overt bigotry and active racism is also challenged by having to cope with a child (unseen) who is both blind and retarded.
With characters sharing Southern roots, lowly economic status, opposing factions and views in the fight for civil rights, the plot’s most significant twist shows C.P.’s gradual rejection of the KKK and his eventual standing up with Ann in her cause. At first, Hinds shows us Ann as an uncompromising, grittily determined force of nature. She’s a hoot, but it’s only a clue to the depth and degree of emotional range that finally defines her performance.
C.P.’s evolution from a monstrous, uneducated victim of an unconscionable society into a mature and sensitized man is something to see, made memorable through Lloyd’s amazing performance. It may be next to impossible not to see a young Barack Obama in the good-looking Guillory’s steadfast, unfettered performance as Riddick, the designated community organizer. Wands is very affecting and real as Mary whom we also see reaching out in the only way she can to Ann, but without her husband’s knowledge.
Moving along briskly under Boyd’s direction, the often bristling play has been inventively designed by David M. Barber to take its participants with ease from place to place through the use of projections and sliding panels on a stage divided into three sections.
In a pre-curtain speech, George Street’s artistic director, David Saint, let the audience know that although the real seventy-seven year-old Ann Atwater wasn’t able to attend the opening night performance, she was “alive and kicking.” The same can be said for St. Germain’s play.
“The Best of Enemies” is a thought-provoking and exciting theatrical brew for those who enjoy a stimulating, excellently acted evening of theater.
The Best of Enemies, George Street Playhouse, 91 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Through Sunday, December 23. $28-$67. 732-246-7717 or www.georgestreetplayhouse.org.