Durham’s ‘Best of Enemies’ portrayed on stage
It was a step back in history that honors one of Durham’s many unsung heroes.
“The Best of Enemies” premiered Sunday at the St. Joseph’s Historic Foundation Hayti Heritage Center before a full house and closed with a standing ovation to honor those who changed history and raised money for local activist Ann Atwater.
“This is not just an opportunity to raise money but also an opportunity to honor your courage, leadership and phenomenal friendship that you and C.P. had,” said Lynn Harris, chairwoman of the board for the Hayti Heritage Center.
Written by playwright Mark St. Germain, “The Best of Enemies” was inspired by the novel by Osha Gray Davidson, “The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South” and chronicles the relationship between local civil rights leader Ann Atwater and former KKK Exalted Cyclops C.P. Ellis and their role in altering Durham’s race relations.
Atwater and Ellis were unlikely allies in the fight for education for children in Durham following the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., before becoming allies in the fight for the lower-class of the area.
Family and friends of both Ellis and Atwater were present for the premiere as well as Atwater herself.
The four-person cast included local educator and actor Trevor Johnson, who portrayed Bill Riddick, the man who united Atwater and Ellis and brought change to Durham.
Trevor said that it was a challenge to portray Riddick, particularly with Riddick sitting in audience.
“It’s an honor,” Johnson said. “It was humbling. These are the events that you hear about from your parents and your grandparents but being a part of it on stage makes you feel like you’re there, like you’re a part of it.”
The journey, Johnson said, has made him more appreciative and inspired him to do more to help area students.
“It makes me want to do a little bit more, be more courageous and do something else for the kids here,” he said.
Johnson shared the stage with Aisha Hinds (“True Blood,” “HawthoRNe” and “Weeds)”, John Bedford Lloyd (:The Manchurian Candidate,” “Nixon and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps”) and Susan Wands (“Law & Order,” “One Life to Live” and “A Streetcar Named Desire”).
The choir of St. Paul AME Church of Chapel Hill performed throughout the play. Historic photos provided by the North Carolina Collection at the Durham County Public Library were displayed throughout the play.
“This is a very special program,” Harris said. “One, because this is the very first time this play has been performed in the city where the events took place and second, the playwright and three of the actors here came at their own expense to perform for you.”
“I was honored to be on stage with such well-known actors and actresses,” Johnson added.
Harris said that after reading an article she thought it would be a good idea to bring “The Best of Enemies” to the city where it all took place. After making some phone calls and sending quite a few emails, the production was scheduled to debut in Durham.
“It was unfortunate that it had not been staged here,” Harris said. “I connected with the playwright and he said that they would come perform the play and wouldn’t charge us anything to us as long as the money is given to Ann. I said okay.
“It really was like divine providence,” continued Harris. “What surprised me is that Ann is one of a number of unsung heroes here in Durham.”
St. Germain said that “The Best of Enemies” will be brought back to Durham next season, with a portion of the box office proceeds going to Atwater.