Best of Enemies: worth befriending

Pacific Theatre is presenting Best of Enemies.

There’s stillness in Celia Aloma’s performance. Don’t let that lull you. (Photo by Diamond’s Edge Photography)

Best of Enemies is a familiar and predictable story of a white man’s redemption, but it still matters — a great deal. And it’s true.

In 1971, in Durham, North Carolina, Ann Atwater was a black housing activist and C.P. Ellis was the Exalted Cyclops of a Durham klavern of the Ku Klux Klan. Bill Riddick, an employee of the state Department of Education, convinced Atwater and Ellis to co-chair a charrette, a series of open meetings about school segregation. The goal was to produce a report and deliver it to the city council. (Even though in 1954 the Supreme Court had ruled in the landmark integration case, Brown v. Board of Education, that racial segregation of children in public schools was unconstitutional, Durham’s schools had not been integrated.)

Onstage, we know where this is going. Even if the publicity material and the program notes didn’t tell us that Atwater and Ellis ended up close friends, the set-up would still make it inevitable: we’re in the theatre, a generally liberal space, so we can be confident that the initial tensions will resolve happily.

Playwright Mark St. Germain isn’t the most stylish of dramatists: he relies too heavily on one-sided phone conversations, for instance. Nonetheless, he manages to make the unfolding story arresting.

Partly that’s because he doesn’t flinch when presenting everyday hatred. Confident in his position in Durham’s culture, Ellis laughs about how Dr. Martin Luther King, who was assassinated the day before the play begins, “dropped like a monkey from a tree.” When Riddick invites him to lunch, he refuses, saying he doesn’t eat watermelon.

Atwater is remarkable — and not a cliché. Not simply a “noble black woman”, she burns with rage, which is both a source of strength and an impediment. She chased her feckless husband with an ax, she knows how vulnerable she is to Ellis’s gun, and she wants to kill him.

But the elements that really make Best of Enemies worth seeing in this production are the relevance of the play’s themes and the excellence of the acting.

An overtly racist dictatorship has never been a clearer possibility in the US. In Canada, assertions of Indigenous sovereignty are met, in some quarters, with blind and bullying assertions of dominance.

So it’s restorative relief to watch a couple of people working through their fears. It’s also terrific that Best of Enemies engages class analysis: Atwater and Ellis find common ground in their poverty.

Celia Aloma brings a wary, watchful stillness to her performance as Atwater. Aloma isn’t posing or adopting attitudes; her Atwater is listening, so when anger — and volume — lash out, they count.

Playing Ellis, Robert Salvador, squares a difficult circle, humanizing a racist without apologizing for him. Through Salvador, we understand that, in Durham in 1971, racism was the air that Ellis breathed and that, to change, he had to give up who he was.

Anthony Santiago’s performance as Riddick, the Department of Education guy, is marked by wit, compassion, and anxiety. It’s a sophisticated piece of work. In a kind of mirror image, Rebecca deBoer combines weariness, toughness, and sly humour in her portrait of Ellis’s wife Mary.

That said, Mary’s presence signals a problem: it points out the absence of secondary characters in Atwater’s story. Atwater changes significantly throughout the course of Best of Enemies, but Ellis is the play’s central protagonist — so this is yet another script about racism that centres the experience of the white guy.

Still, Best of Enemies treats all of its characters with respect — and there’s not enough of that around these days.

When Ellis died in 2005, Atwater spoke at his funeral.

BEST OF ENEMIES By Mark St. Germain. Directed by Ian Farthing. A Pacific Theatre production at the Pacific Theatre on Saturday, February 29. Continues until March 21. Tickets.


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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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