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Friday, December 7, 2012

Review: 'The Best of Enemies' superb at George Street Playhouse

John Bedford Lloyd and Aisha Hinds


Most theatres at this time of the year are presenting holiday or Christmas themed productions with their universal message of good cheer, on the surface the folks at the George Street Playhouse might seem to be minus the holiday spirit. The December presentation is the New Jersey premiere of "The Best of Enemies." The riveting true life story of a poor black civil rights activist and her relationship with a poor white member of the KKK during the school desegregation battle in Durham, North Carolina in 1971. The play by Mark St. Germain is inspired by the book "The Best of Enemies" by Osha Gray Davidson.

Good cheer? Feel good entertainment? Yes, surprisingly on both counts. "The Best of Enemies" is a touching, warm and amazingly funny telling of the highly unlikely relationship between two combatants, each at one point, only minutes, if not seconds, from committing a murderous act. Good cheer? Yes, again, this is superior theatre with outstanding performances by four gifted actors who lead us from the darkest of moments of racial tension to the forming of an incredible long lasting friendship.

Director Julianne Boyd and the cast; Aisha Hinds as the black activist Ann Atwater, John Bedford Lloyd as the KKK leader C.P. Ellis, Don Guillory as Bill Riddick, the college educated black community organizer and Susan Wands as Mary Ellis, combine to provide an extraordinary and powerful theatre experience. They remind us again of the magic that only live theatre can provide.

Don't dismiss this production on the basis of the theme of social injustice. It is a wonderful, "exhilarating example of the human spirit and its capacity for change" as stated perfectly by the GSP Artistic Director David Saint.

The Boyd team is not new to the play, director Boyd and her cast first presented "The Best of Enemies" at the Barrington Stage in Massachusetts in 2011 where it broke all box office records as the most-attended play in their 17 year history and was described as "one of the most important historical plays about America to ever reach the stage." It may not be the most important, but it is a major part of our history that many under the age of 50 do not appreciate or understand the sacrifice many endured to arrive at the integrated world of today. 1971 Durham, like much of the South, seven years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 still restricted Blacks from most restaurants, schools and other establishments. C.P. Ellis's Pure Oil white only service station is a perfect example. Public places still had water fountains designated for "Whites" or " Colored" only.

The story is presented via a series of short scenes or blackouts. The stage consists of three areas, far left is Atwater's humble home with a chair and floor lamp, far right, is white supremacist Ellis' bare kitchen with a 1960's style table and chairs. The center is used for a variety of locations indicated very effectively by large sliding panels and video projection.

Aisha Hinds, a television and film veteran, is superb (this may be an understatement) as Ann Atwater, a tough, sarcastic woman who has suffered much of her life. Married at gunpoint, abandoned by her husband and recently unemployed after being dismissed from a longtime position in a wealthy white home for objecting to constant demeaning treatment, she has the courage to stand up to the discrimination and becomes a voice for her community. Aisha can convey more with a raised eyebrow than most can do with a page of script.
 Photo by Kevin Sprague

Superb too is Broadway veteran John Bedford Lloyd as C.P. Ellis (photo right), who's life is centered around his leadership participation in the Klan, the only place where he has ever been made to feel important. His skillful transition to a self-confidant man is a joy to behold. The other two roles are secondary, but performed by excellent actors, Don Guillory, with Broadway and a first film credit (The Bourne Legacy), as Bill Riddick, the suit-and-tie attired college educated black community organizer who may be naïve, but nonetheless arrogant, in his dealings with the two opposing communities but, in the end achieves what seemed to be impossible, and Susan Wands, with extensive on and off Broadway credits, as Mary Ellis has the smallest role, but she could not be more perfect as C.P. Ellis wife. Mary is unhappy in her marriage; she has a retarded child who requires continuous attention and a husband who places the Klan before wife and family.

Director Julianne Boyd's excellent production staff includes; scenic and projections designer David M. Barber, costume designer Kristina Lucka, lighting designer Scott Pinkney, sound designer Brad Berridge and production stage manager Thomas Clewell.

We rate "The Best of Enemies" at five stars (5 out of 5). Remarkable play with a remarkable cast. "The Best of Enemies" will run until December 23, 2012. The play runs about 95 minutes. There is no intermission. "The Best of Enemies" is recommended for mature audiences due to strong language.

Reviewed by Rick Busciglio December 6, 2012

The George Street Playhouse is located 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, New Jersey. Individual tickets start at $28. The Box Office: 732-246-7717, website www.GSPonline.org.

Aisha Hinds, Don Guillory and John Bedford Lloyd (T. Charles Erickson)

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