Five years ago my elderly Orange County doctor declared of his old hometown, “Detroit was fine until the Negros took control.” Aghast, I failed to muster any response. In liberal Seattle, where we are supposedly educated and enlightened, being that bigoted seems incomprehensible today. Flash back to Durham, North Carolina, in 1971, however, and racism is the norm. Segregation is a fact of life, as confronted by two locals nominated to the federally mandated school-integration committee. One is a black civil-rights activist, Ann Atwater (Faith Russell), the other a white KKK member, C.P. Ellis (Jeff Berryman). Both are poor, and both were real people featured in journalist Osha Gray Davidson’s 1996 book. (This recent dramatization is by Mark St. Germain; Scott Nolte ably directs.)
Ann and C.P. form an odd alliance indeed, though the play first has them air bulletproof biases from opposite sides. Both vomit vitriol until they nearly asphyxiate from their animosity. Enemies opens with C.P. extolling whoever executed “Martin Lucifer Coon,” giving Ann every reason to hate this ignorant redneck. Russell imbues Ann with a Medea-esque fierceness, yet eventually she somewhat softens. Otherwise there’d be no play, no dramatic resolution. Enemies thus takes its antagonists on an inevitable journey toward racial reconciliation, along the way exploring notions of poverty and education that still bedevil the South today.
The federal mediator overseeing the mismatched pair, Bill Riddick (Corey Spruill) furnishes a flawless foil for these fighting factions, most notably when spewing an equal-opportunity list of ethnic slurs in order to show the rage on both sides. Enemies is full of such venomous dialogue, though the small ensemble occasionally blunders its enunciation, so I missed some of the spiteful nuances. Still, the true story makes compelling theater, full of droll moments, disgusting diatribes, and deep transformations. There are subtle comic touches, too, as when C.P. and Ann try to get in synch while collating survey results.
Richard Lorig’s simple set consists of three chairs and a table, juxtaposed against a backdrop of old news headlines. Mark Lund’s sound and video design adds further context from this tumultuous time, well serving the drama from not-so-distant times.
How far have things changed in four decades? Watching then writing about Enemies makes me feel both sad and optimistic. Schools have been integrated in legal principle if not practice. Racism is more widely abhorred than ever. Yet the 24-hour news cycle, political punditry, and social media permit a polarization that C.P. and Ann could never have predicted in 1971.
THE BEST OF ENEMIES Taproot Theatre, 204 N. 85th St., 781-9707, taproottheatre.org. $20–$40. 7:30 p.m. Wed.–Thurs., 8 p.m. Fri., 2 & 8 p.m. Sat. Ends April 25.