No one ever blamed Durham’s legendary civil rights activist Ann Atwater for a lack of confidence.
Atwater, who died in 2016 at the age of eighty, knew that Hollywood was set to produce a movie that would chronicle the deep animus turned deep friendship she developed with C.P. Ells, the owner of a local gas station and exalted cyclops of the Klu Klux Klan, who tore up his Klan membership card while the two of them struggled together to de-segregate Durham schools.
Shortly before she died, Atwater, a domineering presence who was known locally as “Rough House Annie,” voiced a deathbed prophecy of sorts to Osha Gray Davidson, the award-winning writer of Best of Enemies: A Story of Race and Redemption in the South, the book chronicling the friendship that was published in 1996.
She told Davidson, “That Cookie lady is going to play me!” She didn’t know Taraji Henson’s name: All she knew was ‘Cookie,’ the character on the television series, Empire.
Davidson told this anecdote to a group of theatre students after watching their moving and impressive stage performance of his work, in an adaptation written by the playwright Mark St. Germain. In March, Davidson visited the Bull City to attend the premiere of the movie, Best of Enemies, which was based on his book. The film starred Henson—Atwater’s wish had come true—and Sam Rockwell as C.P. Ellis.
Davidson was in Durham again Friday to watch the opening night stage adaptation of his book by the playwright Mark St. Germain, performed by student actors with the North Carolina Central University Department of Theatre.
The young thespians turned in a stellar performance, Zora Umeadi, as Atwater, and Erik Di Lauro as Ellis, rivaled Henson and Rockwell, with their intensity. The pair was nicely balanced by Antwan Hawkins’ portrayal of Bill Riddick, the man who—twelve years after the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed segregation in the nation’s public schools—organized ten meetings between the races in 1971 at the Lakewood YMCA, in a quest to desegregate the school system,
Umeadi, with the audience serving as members of the meeting, repeatedly broke theatre’s fourth wall in a not-so Falstaffian fashion, when she commanded them to raise their hands on issues that needed a vote.
Her words sounded like hot molten lava, when she repeated, “I said raise your hands,” to audience members who were hesitant to vote.
(Indeed, judging from the dismal turnout for the election primaries that occurred this month, the spirit of Atwater is sorely needed.)
Atwater and Ellis grew up on opposite sides of the color line, but while co-chairing the Save Our Schools committee, they learned they had much in common. Atwater was the ninth child of black sharecroppers, raised in Hallsboro, where she worked in white-owned farm fields and married by the age of fourteen with two children. She moved to Durham after her husband left her.
Ellis was the son of a Klu Klux Klansman father who worked at a textile mill and blamed his family’s poverty on black people. He passed his odious values down to his son, who was a failure in school and worked as a janitor as a young man before he married, had three children, and saved enough money to buy a gas station. Still, poverty remained a mainstay and reinforced his father’s teachings about black people.
Ellis described membership in the Klan as one of the most memorable events in his life. He rose through the ranks and became a leader at local city council meetings.
As Ellis, Di Lauro was effective and drew considerable discomfort with an ongoing litany of racist remarks that included his glee when he found out Martin Luther King had been assassinated, describing the civil rights leader as a “monkey who had been shot out of the tree.”
Di Lauro, in a refrain that resonates among white nationalists today, decried the fate of the white race in the face of “19 million of them who multiply like bunnies.”
“What about the white man?” he asked.
Di Lauro’s rendition of Ellis was a near-caricature that rivaled the old Step ’n Fetchit character in whiteface, but it was all, (is?), so terribly true.
Meanwhile, Hawkins’ Bill Riddick cleverly maneuvered the two enemies into positions that first cracked the armor of their resentments when he prompted the two of them to agree that they both wanted the best education for their children.
The trio’s work was amply supported by C.P.’s wife, Ann Ellis, whose sympathetic portrait of personal and marital trouble was skillfully delineated by Keyanna Alexander, and an energetic ensemble who played multiple roles throughout the production; high school students who wanted to tear down C.P.’s klan exhibit he displayed at the meetings, waitresses, choir members, and klansmen.
The minimalist staging was augmented by a screen upstage that featured familiar Durham landmarks, including the Lakewood YMCA, klan memorabilia, and audio recordings, particularly one of Jesse Helms delivering one of his racist editorials that was broadcast statewide while working with WRAL before his foray into politics.
Small wonder that the production has been earmarked for entry in the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival, where judges select the best college theatre production of the year. NCCU in 1992, took home top honors with their adaptation of Zora Neale Hurston’s Mules and Men.
St. Germain’s stage adaptation of Best of Enemies premiered in 2011 with a performance at the Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Mass. This NCCU performance, though, marked the first time Davidson had seen the staged production.
The award-winning author said it was a privilege to get to know Atwater and Ellis.
“It’s very emotional to be here, at this stage, at this place that’s so historical,” Davidson said about what he described as NCCU’s, “ pivotal role in the history of Durham. It’s kind of mind-blowing to see C.P. and Ann on stage,” he told the student cast and technical, along with the play’s director, theatre department chairperson, Stephanie “Asabi” Howard, at the night’s end.
“The whole time I was watching, I was missing Ann and C.P., so seeing them together was emotional because they’re real people to me.”
Davidson said that what ultimately forged a friendship between Atwater and Ellis was their mutual discovery that the city’s white elites were pitting the races against one another for their own benefit.
The play’s program notes state that conditions in the Durham schools improved, and that Atwater and Ellis became life long friends. Atwater even spoke at Ellis’s funeral when he died in 2005.
“You know the terrible thing we did, C.P.?” Atwater asks her adversary-turned-friend at the play’s end. “We changed.”
Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.