Best of Enemies

Best of Enemies

Best of Enemies
By Mark St. Germain
Directed by Mark Routhier
Starring Avis-Marie Barnes and Richard B. Watson
Orlando Shakespeare Theatre, Orlando, FL

If nothing else, this show will increase your vocabulary of racial epitaphs enormously. It’s 1971 in Durham, NC and the Old South is as strong as ever. Blacks hate whites, whites hate blacks, and the difference between this period and 200 years ago is limited to the invention of the telephone and Mason jars replacing stoneware for moonshine storage. Activist Bill Riddick (Corey Allen) invades with pamphlets and high ideals, he’s a brave man who seeks out the motor behind the local KKK. That’s tobacco chewing C.P. Ellis (Watson), gas station owner and son of a mill worker. When not pumping gas he’s keeping his town safe from unions and commies and uppity blacks in his spiffy red KKK drag, and that’s a full time job. C. P.’s counterpart is Ann “Rough House” Atwater (Barnes); she’s a fiery church lady and has about as much hate as C. P. does. Riddick figures if he can get these two together and they don’t kill each other, there might be an inch or two of progress.

So many “Issues” plays lean towards turgid sermonizing, but this sprightly civil rights drama never falls down that trapdoor. Barnes is surprisingly funny; while she never has any actual laugh lines her timing is piercing when delivering her little asides. Watson is bubbling with energy and looks like his head might explode from all the blacks around him. He also has an amazing ability to project with a chaw in his cheek, and he never once dribbles tobacco juice. The urbane Allen is always in control, he seems almost super human and perhaps even immortal. His confidence browbeats C. P. and Ann into sitting at the same table, then talking to each other, and even changing their attitudes. While these three all achieve something they concede as a positive, C. P.’s wife Mary (Anna Carol) remains the truly tragic woman. You sense she won’t make it through the evening, but before she goes she takes a major step in converting C. P. from a total redneck peckerwood to semi reasonable adult – she buries his gun and deprives him of his last refuge of power.

This is a very modern play, full of tiny scenes, exposition delivered by telephone and no intermission. Just as society has shifted, so have our theatrical tastes but not the results. But St. Germain and Director Routhier exploit these modernisms without the show feeling choppy or dislocated or like a movie shoehorned on stage. The set is minimal, pictures of KKK events cover the back and what few props are needed appear and vanish quickly leaving time for us to study the harsh and provocative language. In one scene Reddick spews out a seemingly endless litany of every term imaginable from “Ofay”‘ and “Jigaboo” to “Niglet” and “Mayonnaise.” That’s the strategy here – put everything on the table, call it what it is, and move on. If only the world at large could reconcile as peacefully as desegregation did in the South…

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