Based on a true story, Taproot Theatre’s “Best of Enemies” depicts the unlikely friendship of a KKK leader and a black civil-rights activist.
“Best of Enemies” at Taproot Theatre is the kind of play that makes the unbelievable believable.
Yet though this tale of two people who forge a very unlikely bond across a racial chasm could easily be wishful fiction, it’s not.
Adapted from the book “The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South” by Osha Gray Davidson, Mark St. Germain’s script charts the relationship of two prominent North Carolinians: Ann Atwater and the late C.P. Ellis.
‘Best of Enemies’
By Mark St. Germain, through April 25, Taproot Theatre, 204 N. 85th St., Seattle; $15-$40 (206-781-9707 or taproottheatre.org )
St. Germain doesn’t soft-pedal the deep-rooted and bitter enmity between Atwater (Faith Russell), a scrappy African-American civil-rights rabble-rouser, and Ellis (Jeff Berryman), a rabidly prejudiced, rifle-toting Ku Klux Klan leader.
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That these two ever exchanged a civil word, let alone accomplished something important together, was in good measure engineered by a gutsy black community organizer, Bill Riddick (Corey Spruill). As the play relates, Riddick’s strategy was to conjoin and conquer by getting the two Durham, N.C., residents to lay down their swords and shields, and co-chair a charette (urban-planning task force) on the court-mandated integration of local public schools.
It was 1971, as new civil-rights laws passed years earlier were being painfully enacted — and defied. In the play, the pair’s initial meeting is portrayed as brief, nasty and perilous. Neither wants to be seen in public with the other.
Ellis hurls ugly racial epithets at Atwater that are unprintable in this newspaper. His venomous hostility just hardens Atwater’s hatred of white bigots, and distrust of whites in general. “When I see a snake,” says the knife-carrying mother of two, “I chop its head off.”
Given the racism she’s endured all her life, and still encounters daily while scraping together a living as a housemaid, Atwater’s attitude is understandable. Russell represents her ably as a spirited, rock-solid woman whose toughness has helped her survive, but also isolated her.
The wall around Ellis is much harder to crack. “Best of Enemies” spends more of its 90 minutes telling his story, and trying to get under his skin.
The excellent Berryman is scarily persuasive as the red-satin-robed, peak-hatted Klan leader spouting toxic rhetoric and fomenting violence. And he’s just as convincing as the struggling gas station owner riddled with insecurities, the brooding alcoholic so contorted by hate he has little affection in the tank for loved ones — his perceptive, careworn wife Mary (touchingly played by Jenny Vaughn Hall) and their three children.
Two major events quake Ellis’ belief system: a family crisis, and an epiphany that he and Atwater have common cause. If race doesn’t bind them, class does. And when the good ol’ boys and local white officials in his circle ostracize Ellis for consorting with the “enemy” during the charette, he starts to see himself, his community and those he was bred to despise on principle far differently. And his transformation is radical.
“Best of Enemies” is not without boilerplate rhetoric or sentimentality. And it covers a lot of ground in many short, clipped scenes that suggest the rhythm of a made-for-TV movie.
But director Scott Nolte smooths the choppiness with lively pacing, consistently strong actors (the Russell-Berryman dynamic is electric) and the slivers of country and soul tunes in Mark Lund’s sound design. (We also hear the racist radio rhetoric of North Carolina talk-show host Jesse Helms, which fueled his U.S. Senate career.)
This is a year of re-examining race relations — on the streets, in the news and on Seattle stages. “Best of Enemies” adds a fascinating historical element as it ponders how two individuals overcame mutual stubbornness, social pressure and a hundred years of virulently divisive history to become unlikely but true friends.