Part of Durham’s history: Manbites Dog to presents ‘Best of Enemies’
The friendship between Ann Atwater and Claiborne Paul (C. P.) Ellis is often cited as a quintessentially Durham story. In 1971 Atwater, an African-American community organizer, and Ellis, then head of Durham’s Ku Klux Klan, were picked to co-chair a committee to address community concerns about the integration of Durham’s public schools.
They clashed at first, both defending their separate spheres. During the discussion sessions called charrettes, Atwater and Ellis found common ground. Both came from poverty, and both had children in public schools who faced ridicule because of their parents’ participation in the charrettes. They developed a lifelong friendship. When Ellis died in 2005, Atwater sat with his family at the funeral.
Osha Gray Davidson chronicled the history behind that friendship in his 1996 book “The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South.” Playwright Mark St. Germain based his play “The Best of Enemies” on Davidson’s book.
The play premiered in 2011 at the Barrington Stage in Pittsfield, Mass. A dramatic reading of the play was presented in June at Hayti Heritage Center.
Manbites Dog Theatre will present the first local, full stage production of “The Best of Enemies” this month. Some of the actors discussed the process of portraying their characters and did a short dramatic reading during a sneak peek at the Durham County Library last month.
Playing the still-living characters in this drama puts pressure on them, the actors said. Lakeisha Coffey, who plays Atwater, said she recently met Atwater and talked about 1971 and school integration. “This is the first time I’ve had to portray a character who is local and well-known and living,” Coffey said. “It’s a big responsibility to do it right.”
Thaddaeus Edwards said he had similar pressure portraying Bill Riddick, the charrette moderator who made the bold move to choose Ellis and Atwater as leaders. Meeting Riddick was “very illuminating” and “very freeing,” Edwards said. He was able to talk to Riddick about how he felt during those tense days of 1971. “I was able to separate him from the man on the page.”
Riddick studied social work and brought that experience with him to Durham. “He didn’t know how hard it was going to be, but he knew that he could do it,” Edwards said. Riddick expected more help from the school administration, “but that was not the case when he got here,” he said.
To prepare for the role of Ellis, Derrick Ivey said he had to find a way to portray Ellis’ early hatred for Atwater and black people in a realistic way. He read an interview that writer Studs Terkel did with Ellis, and tried to understand how poverty drove much of Ellis’ hatred and resentment. “Thankfully, he has a turnaround,” Ivey said. “The hard part is going to the dark place so he can see the light.” After the charrette, Ellis resigned his Klan position, renounced his racist views, and became an organizer and leader of the union representing Duke University maintenance workers.
Filmmaker Diane Bloom also chronicled the friendship between Atwater and Ellis in her 2002 documentary “An Unlikely Friendship.” At first, Ellis was hesitant to speak, Bloom said during the panel discussion. “He was so mellow, and so nice,” she said of Ellis, who shattered any preconception she had about how a former Klansman might act.
“What has most surprised me about the film is how well it has been received at film festivals and diversity conferences,” Bloom said. She thinks “people were hungry for hope” that the Atwater-Ellis story offers. “It’s such a rich part of Durham’s history.”
WANT TO GO?
WHAT: Production of “The Best of Enemies,” by playwright Mark St. Germain
WHEN: Dec. 5-21. Showtimes are Thursday-Saturday at 8:15 p.m. The production continues Dec. 12–14 at 8:15 p.m., with a Dec. 15 matinee at 2, and Dec. 18-21 at 8:15.
WHERE: Manbites Dog Theatre, 703 Foster St., Durham
ADMISSION: General admission tickets start at $18. To purchase, and for more details, call 919-682-3343 or visit www.manbitesdogtheatre.org. An opening night reception and benefit for Ann Atwater will be held Dec. 6 at 8:15 p.m. Tickets to the opening night and reception are $25.