The Best of Enemies

Manbites Dog Theater
Through Dec. 21

It’s a concern that many have voiced over the past week, following the death of Nelson Mandela: that revisionists will, in the words of Musa Okwonga, “try to smooth him, sandblast him,” and “hide his anger from view.”

For these reasons alone, we owe a debt of gratitude to playwright Mark St. Germain. His 2011 adaptation of Osha Gray Davidson’s The Best of Enemies, a best-selling nonfiction account of the racial turmoil that split Durham in the 1970s, is a raw and, at times, even challenging work to sit through. Its principal characters are C. P. Ellis, then the Exalted Cyclops of the local Ku Klux Klan, and community activist Ann Atwater, known as “Roughhouse Annie” for her predilection for confrontation. The animus they direct at each other hasn’t been dialed down, in scenes ranging from a civic gathering to a local Klan meeting. In the latter sequence, Jon Haas’ jaw-dropping video design bathes a series of screens carefully integrated into Derrick Ivey’s set design with Klan imagery and propaganda. Elsewhere, Alex Maness’ sound montage, including a racist Jesse Helms editorial for WRAL-TV, confronts us with further evidence of that time.

Under Joseph Megel’s direction, Ivey and Lakeisha Coffey vividly depict Ellis and Atwater in two of the strongest performances of the year, not as safe, genial spokespersons but as strong and strongly flawed characters in the center of a racial maelstrom. The company and the script resist the impulse to offer blanket sanctity to those on the side we favor most. Here, after both characters first seem deadlocked by their own fears, hatreds and self-righteousness, they struggle against those elements as well as the greater conflict.

Supporting actor Thaddaeus Edwards fully humanizes the roles of Bill Riddick, the organizer from the United States Department of Health, Education and Welfare who placed a charrette about Durham’s suffering public schools in the hands of two of the most polarized figures in the community. Elisabeth Lewis Corley gave a rock-solid foundation to Ellis’ wife, Mary, who becomes increasingly vocal.

The unsparing testimony in this theatrical document reminds us just how significant it was that Ellis and Atwater found a bridge to each other in the midst of that conflict. In reminding us of the work that yet remains, The Best of Enemies asks what prevents each of us from doing the same.

Correction: Video designer Jon Haas’ name was misspelled as Hass.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Fantastic journeys.”