OFF BROADWAY REVIEW
The printed program at George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick warns you that “The Best of Enemies” is recommended only for mature audiences due to “strong language.” What it doesn’t say is that the show also will make us face the best and worst in ourselves.
Based on a book by Osha Gray Davidson, the evening covers the true story about the relationship between C.P.Ellis, a Grand Cyclops of the Klu Klux Klan, and Ann Atwater, an African American civil rights activist, during the desegregation of schools in Durham, North Carolina in 1971. It follows the two as they faced each other, in the process exposing the poison of prejudice in the hearts of the people of their city.
The play was written by Mark St. Germain, and if the name sounds familiar, perhaps you remember “Camping with Henry and Tom," a work that won a host of awards a few years back. Or, perhaps you recall “Forgiving Typhoid Mary." He has also written musicals, including “Johnny Pye” and “Stand By Your Man: The Tammy Wynette Story."
A cast of four covers all of the action, led by John Bedford Lloyd as Ellis and Aisha Hinds as Ann Atwater. Although both have enviable resumes, including regional theater and television, here it is virtually impossible to imagine anyone else in the roles, or either of them playing other parts. Don Guillory plays Bill Riddick, a sort of moderator who on occasions deliberately provokes the combatants so that progress can be achieved. And Susan Wands plays Mary Ellis, the tragic wife of C.P., who helps define his character and, in some sense, leads to the denouement. But there is much here besides “strong language” that will move a sensitive audience to wrestle with one’s own consciences. One radio critic has called it “a play of hope and inspiration” and it is indeed made for the holiday season.
The set design, by David M. Barber, is simplicity itself. Stage left belong to the Ellipses; stage right to Ms. Atwater, and the center section is the territory of moderator Riddick and the battles, sometimes loud, often just bitter, but grudgingly bringing the two closer together
“The Best of Enemies” continues at George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Ave., New Brunswick through Dec. 23. Please call the box office at (732) 246-7717 for reservations and questions.