Opposites unite in The Best of Enemies | Theater Review | Chicago Reader

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Opposites unite in The Best of Enemies

Mark St. Germain's play outlines an unlikely friendship between a Black civil rights activist and a onetime member of the KKK.

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Some plays seem tailor-made for small spaces. Such is the case with Mark St. Germain's powerful four-hander, adapted from Osha Gray Davidson's 1996 book The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South (also the source for a 2019 film), about the real but unlikely friendship that developed between Ann Atwater, a fiery civil rights activist, and C.P. Ellis, an equally fiery "exalted cyclops" of the Knights of the Klu Klux Klan, in Durham, North Carolina, in the early 1970s. As performed in Open Door's intimate 75-seat house, this show is riveting. Even the quieter moments of the play raise the roof, as when after lots of shouting and finger jabbing and name calling, these two stubborn souls suddenly discover they are after the same things—a good education and a better future for their children.

In Ellis's words, "The amazing thing about it, her and I, up to that point, [had] cussed each other, bawled each other, we hated each other. Up to that point, we didn't know each other. We didn't know we had things in common."

It helps, of course, that the show, under the direction of Sonita L. Surratt and Mary Pat Sieck, unfolds so gracefully. They know how to use the small stage to full advantage, as do the show's stars, Felisha McNeal and Brendan Murphy. McNeal and Murphy have strong enough lungs to bellow with the best of them. But they're equally adept at speaking softly enough that we lean forward to hear every word. Maybe if enough people lean forward, they will listen. In a time of division, the story of Atwater and Ellis gives one hope.  v

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