If you are like me and you learned about desegregation from a textbook rather than lived experience, this year’s racially-charged political rhetoric was unfamiliar territory. Voter suppression and “dog whistles” about a welfare president were shocking to the younger set, and their vote was instrumental in helping President Obama get re-elected. What was perhaps even more important in this election was a growing understanding about the role the top one percent of Americans has in shaping policies that affect the rest of the country.Enter Florida Studio Theatre’s latest production, Best of Enemies, to keep these important topics front and center even as we head full throttle into the holiday season. The real-life story of a Ku Klux Klan leader named C.P. Ellis (played by FST regular Sheffield Chastain) and an African-American civil rights leader named Ann Atwater (played by Stephanie Weeks) asks powerful questions about race and money, but leads the audience to a holiday-worthy conclusion about the role of goodwill and redemption in achieving lasting social change. Ellis is hateful, spiteful and malicious, a perfect candidate to run the local Ku Klux Klan in Durham, North Carolina. He has behind-the-scenes relationships with politicians who believe in his message but can’t be publicly associated with his cause. Chastain manages to make Ellis a sympathetic character even before he makes a major transformation, and I attribute that to Chastain’s excellent performance and to Ellis’ oddly sweet relationship with his long-suffering wife, Mary, played with subtle grace by Amanda Duffy. Atwater has built up such a rough shell from her bitter life experiences it seems impenetrable, but slowly, through a nuanced performance by Weeks, she lets her humanity come through.Ellis’ and Atwater’s lives intersect when they are approached by Bill Riddick (played by Kevyn Morrow), who comes to Durham from the Department of Education. When Riddick introduces himself to Ellis as a “community organizer,” you can see Ellis seething at the sight of a well-educated black man in a suit trying to tell him what to do. It’s the same kind of look we’ve grown used to seeing when people show disrespect toward the world’s most famous community organizer. Riddick intends to organize a charrette (an intensive set of community meetings) to address the post-Brown v. Board of Education inequities which continue to exist in the local school system, and no amount of ridicule or deep-seated hatred will sway him from his goals. He comes up with a brilliant move to ask Ellis to co-chair the charrette with Atwater. Both stubbornly refuse to work with their mortal enemy, but Riddick manages to persuade them to look after their own interests during the process.
The results of the charrette surprise even Riddick, who hoped that by bringing the community together he could shed light on disparities in the school system. Ultimately, Ellis and Atwater realize that they have more in common with each other than they do with the policymakers. It dawns on Ellis that stoking racial flames benefits the wealthy elites who can drive a wedge among working-class people so that they can retain power. This is the kind of moment in theater that I cherish most: when politics and art come together to make lasting impressions on an audience in a way that no textbook or political speech can.
I highly recommend this excellent production running through Jan. 27, 2013. Also of note, the production is staged in the new and improved Gompertz Theatre, where you can get dinner in the Green Room Café and Bar before the show. Go to floridastudiotheatre.org for more information.