2013 has already been an extraordinary year in theatre for the Triangle, but one of the most powerful productions of the year has come near the end. Through December 21, Manbites Dog Theater is presenting The Best of Enemies, by Mark St. Germain, who based his excellent play on Osha Gray Davidson’s book of the same title, which laid out the amazing story of the confrontation and eventual friendship between Ann Atwater, a black civil rights activist, and C.P. Ellis, a white Ku Klux Klansman, during Durham’s struggles with school desegregation in the early 1970s. An American story of truth and reconciliation, it is beautifully directed by Joseph Megel, who has previously demonstrated unusual skill at dramatizing the humanity behind the ideas of race and class struggle.
Enemies also caps a year of almost super-human activity in the theatre by Derrick Ivey, who has taken on a mad range of roles, as well as designing and directing. If I could hand out a Theatre Artist of the Year award, I’d give it to Ivey today. Of the four actors in this very fine ensemble, he had the hardest job: to get inside the mind of the profoundly bigoted “linthead” Ellis, and make him sympathetic to audiences even before Ellis’ great change begins. Even for those who are familiar with the story to the point of ennui, Ivey, and Lakeisha Coffey as Atwater, imbued the stage play with all the wonder of fear transformed into trust. I had been wrong to doubt the value of staging this story. This is a moral fable we have not yet drained of its lessons.
Ivey is well known for his perceptive, nuanced presentations of humanity in its many peculiar forms — if you’ve been to the theatre in the Triangle in the past three decades or so, you will have seen him plumbing the strange, the sad, and the beauteous. But this production also presents Lakeisha Coffey as a full-fledged actor. It is not her first show by any means, but the first in which her powers — interpretive, physical, and vocal — have reached such a high level of strength and control. For much of the time in Enemies, she has only to hit one bellicose note…but then she must allow her character to change, ever so slowly. Whether you focus on the character or the actor, her metamorphosis is a beautiful thing to watch.
Elisabeth Lewis Corley as Ellis’ wife, Mary, never put a foot wrong, and without her quiet force, neither the story nor the play would have any means to balance the volatility of C.P. and Ann. Mary’s the kind of sturdy, self-directed woman you used to meet out in the county — tough, vulnerable, disappointed, carrying her burden without whimpering — and liable to take bold action at unexpected times. Corley caught this complex mix with tender accuracy.
The ensemble is rounded out by the outside instigator, Bill Riddick from the U.S. Government, come to town to force some action on school desegregation by means of charettes and committees. Riddick is played by Thaddaeus Edwards, in an interesting variation on his role as Elegba, orisha of the crossroads, in The Brothers Size (also directed by Megel at Manbites Dog in 2012). Riddick’s own changes add depth to those of the play’s main characters.
The actors are so powerful that this show could be done in a bare room under fluorescent lights, but thankfully it is not. Instead, the production is supercharged by clean, expressive design work by Derrick Ivey (!), set; Andrew Parks, lighting; Marissa Erickson, costumes; Jon Haas, video; and Alex Maness, sound. It’s 1971 all over again, even including a green and purple dashiki and a sound clip of hate-spewing WRAL commentator Jesse Helms, before he became Senator No. It is typical of director Megel to assemble such a strong team to attend to every detail. It’s a way to seduce the audience into unguarded involvement with difficult matters. After all, there’s nothing to do about history except embrace it, and in this case, that is very easy.
A limited number of tickets are available for the remainder of the run. See our sidebar for details. And please note the following from Manbites Dog: "Sunday Dec 15 is SOLD OUT. Get info about the waiting list. ADDED SHOWS: Due to demand, we have added two matinee shows: Sat Dec 14 and Sat Dec 21 at 2:00."