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Friday, April 3, 2015

"Best of Enemies" at Taproot Theatre, Based on a True Story, Confronts, Moves, and Inspires — a review

  Jeff Berryman and Faith Russell in Best of Enemies.Photo by Erik Stuhaug
There exists a kind of time travel that forces a person, ready or not, through darkness and extreme discomfort on a trip as irreversible as birth. A play called Best of Enemies, at Taproot Theatre in Seattle March 25-April 25, 2015, takes audiences on this trip. It tears away the insulating comfort of group identification, the notion of “them and us,” as it examines human prejudices and commonalities. Hopefully, as in the journey of birth, the traveler ultimately reaches a place of light, joy, and a new life, or at least the potential for as much.

Written by Mark St. Germain and directed by Scott Nolte, this powerfully moving, tragic, and uplifting play is based on the book The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South by Osha Gray Davidson, a true story of how a Ku Klux Klan member named C.P. Ellis and a female black civil rights activist named Ann Atwater ended up working together for the betterment of their communities in Durham, North Carolina, and how that connection forever changed both of them and the course of their lives. Taproot Theatre Company hopes this production will change other lives as well. 

 Faith Russell, Corey Spruill and Jeff Berryman in Best of Enemies.Photo by Erik Stuhaug.
The vehicle for time travel used here appears to be simple, at first, a product of Richard Lorig’s creative scenic design—a table and a few chairs on an otherwise empty stage, a wall covered with enlarged newspaper clippings, some TV screens showing black and white photographs that change, simple props like a couple of telephones, and some liquor bottles. Then you notice that the newspaper clippings are of events related to the struggle for civil rights in the years following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. Images on the screens flash back to the late 1960s and early 1970s. Ghostly voices of radio personalities with racist agendas blare forth at times. 

The characters, too, appear simple at first. Have we not met them before? Are we not tempted to stereotype them ourselves—the bigoted Klansman, the outraged and outspoken black woman, the do-gooder civil rights worker from up north, the housewife and stay-at-home mother? Do not make that mistake. Each character, before your eyes, becomes a fully developed and deeply complex human being, each with their own pain, presumptions, and suspicions born of experience, fear, loneliness, and a lack of communication.

  Faith Russell and Jeff Berryman in Best of Enemies.Photo by Erik Stuhaug.
On this canvas of a stage with its sparse furnishings, I watched four fine actors paint a mural of their characters’ shared history and humanity using brushstrokes of raw feelings and excellent acting. The first stroke shocked me like a slash of blood red paint. The character of C.P. Ellis (Jeff Berryman) addressed an invisible gathering of Klan members, gleeful over the assassination of Martin Luther King. Although the theater’s size makes it feel intimate, it was also nearly full on the night I attended. Yet it seemed that during the short pauses in his highly offensive rants, Berryman managed to stare right into the eyes of everyone there, not only into mine. I could feel all of us squirm as the impact of his words hit us. Berryman had the talent to make me afraid and later make me care, as he revealed his character’s personal pain and insecurities.

Equally intimidating in her own way was the character of Ann Atwater, artfully portrayed by Faith Russell. At first Atwater gave me little more to relate to than did Ellis. Both were harsh, angry, self-righteous, stereotypical and stereotyping, both believing God was on their side. They both used words like weapons, and at first did not even seem willing to reach a middle ground. They delivered both side-splitting and heart breaking lines, Germain’s often witty script giving some balance to the heavy subject matter and helping to ease the tension as we watched two people change. Initially filled with hate, they come to terms with the uncomfortable fact that they are actually beginning to respect, understand, and even like each other, but at a price. 

Another character was Bill Riddick (Corey Spruill), a black civil rights worker from out of town who has come to help organize meetings of both sides in the hope of fostering communication and understanding. With a smile on his face and an air of eternal optimism, covering realistic worries, he deftly sets up the loom that will weave these opposing forces together. Spruill’s sensitive performance required him to walk the tightrope between humility and incredible bravery, and he never fell.

Jenny Vaughn Hall and Jeff Berryman in Best of Enemies.Photo by Erik Stuhaug.
Jenny Vaughn Hall played the part of Mary Ellis, wife of Klansman and gas station/garage owner C.P. Ellis was simply outstanding in this role. She gave her character a familiarity that hid a quiet strength and depth, making an ordinary woman seem extraordinary and reminding us that profound spiritual wisdom and great heart sometimes come in a package we take for granted as common. This talented actress just found a new fan, and I hope to see her on stage again soon.

Amanda Sweger’s lighting design, Sarah Burch Gordon’s perfect costumes, and Mark Lund’s clever and oh so effective sound and video design all combined for a powerful sensory experience. Stage Manager Claire Branch, Dramaturg Shelby Vander Molen and Dialect Coach Simon Pringle obviously made huge contributions as well. 

A thoughtfully chosen mix of the era’s popular music served as a soundtrack for Best of Enemies. They took me back, those lyrics of my earlier life, those tunes that made me recall where I was when I heard them, and with whom. If I could have, I would have chosen to remember those years with embarrassingly innocent nostalgia, distanced as I was from the most blatant forms of discrimination. However, the true history of those times includes ugly injustices too easily ignored or accepted, even here in the Pacific Northwest, our little paradise with it’s own dark past, and in some cases, present.

I highly recommend Best of Enemies and hope everyone reading this will go to see it. (Order tickets here.) I guarantee that you will laugh and cry, because the forces of personality and circumstance feel so real. When you think about what it took to play these uncomfortable parts, your admiration for the cast will soar. I cannot quit thinking about Russell’s comment about her role as Ann Atwater during the post play discussion.

“To make it real and valid, I allow the impact of it,” she said. 

I promise, you will see and feel that impact. Then, think about how what you have seen will change your perception of history and the emotional lives and experiences of your fellow human beings. This trip back through time is not always a fun vacation, but one you will be glad you took. If the real C.P. Ellis and Ann Atwood could work out their differences, there is hope for the rest of us.

 Faith Russell, Corey Spruill and Jeff Berryman in Best of Enemies.Photo by Erik Stuhaug.


Anonymous said...

Yes, I enjoyed this show as well. When we support ourselves in "making it real" and "feeling the impact" ideas and possibilities for untangling our world's multiple messes will start to congeal and we'll find ways to let them become real and make impacts in their turn. Great review.

Candace Brown said...

Thank you for your nice comment and for sharing your thoughts on the potential outcomes of facing facts and dealing with them. You make a very good point when you say that to do so is actually a way to "support ourselves."