By PAM HARBAUGH
Orlando — During the Vietnam War, Pres. Lyndon Baines Johnson often said the goal was to “win over the hearts and minds” of those who would be the enemy. This same idea, coincidentally at the same historical era, comes to vivid life onstage in Orlando Shakespeare Theatre’s soul-stirring production of “Best of Enemies.”
Written by Mark St. Germain, the story is set in Durham, N.C. in 1971, a mere 7 years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The drama explores how two bigots — white C.P. Ellis and black Ann Atwater — work together to protect their own interests with impending school desegregation. Bringing them together is community organizer Bill Riddick, who comes to town to enact a “charrette,” which is a meeting with divergent groups working on a single goal.
While the story seems pretty simple, the emotions raging behind it are complex and complicated. They become grist for the drama and the remarkable cast bringing it to life.
Richard B. Watson will leave you breathless by his powerful portrayal of C.P. Ellis. His character is the first we see. Swaggering, tobacco-chewing, spouting foul racist language and even fouler diatribe against the slain Martin Luther King, Jr., C.P. Ellis is the embodiment of hate and ignorance. But it is said that an actor must always, always love his or her character, no matter how vile. And here, Mr. Watson brings such deep humanity to his role that you begin to understand that he is, at his core, a man marginalized by society and by his wife, Mary (a wonderful Anna Carol). Belonging to the KKK empowers C.P. Ellis and gives him pride, no matter how misguided. I really don’t want to tell you much more because there is such an enormous arc of discovery to this character, each watershed moment digs deeper and deeper until you are left in emotional ruins, but all the better for it.
Avis-Marie Barnes also takes her character, Ann Atwater, on a heart-changing ride. So beaten down by oppression, so weary of just being thrown the scraps from the white man’s table, Atwater is doggedly determined to get some justice for her community. She is as bull-headed as Ellis is hateful. And it is Ms. Barnes’ Atwater who evolves as the stronger of the two. When Bill Riddick (the splendid Corey Allen) brings her into the first charrette, the hate she spews toward C.B. Ellis is undeniable.
So, yes, there is a lot of change that happens. And we get to see it, compressed into one hour and 45 minutes and no intermission.
Director Mark Routhier adds to the tension by keeping characters so close they could choke each other. But he uses every square inch of the intimate Goldman Theatre, creating what becomes for the audience an immersive experience with a walloping catharsis.
In other words, don’t miss this. It’s strong, you’ll need a box of tissues, but it’s powerful theater that holds a mirror up to our history. Produced in partnership with the Holocaust Memorial Center and Education Center, this production of “Best of Enemies” begs the question: When will our hearts and our minds really be won?
Photo by Tony Firriolo
SIDE O’ GRITS: “Best of Enemies” runs through Nov. 16 at the Orlando Shakespeare Theatre with performances Wednesdays through Sundays. With necessary harsh language and racial slurs, this production is not recommended for children under the age of 13 years. $20 to $45. Discounts for students and military. $12 student rush tickets available, in person only, one hour before the show. The Lowndes Shakespeare Center is at 812 E. Rollins St., Orlando. Call 407-447-1700 ext. 1 or visit www.OrlandoShakes.org.
MORE: A special performance is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 26, at $100 per person. It includes pre-show hors d’oeuvres and drinks beginning at 6 p.m. All proceeds benefit the Holocaust Memorial Resource & Education Center of Florida.