He was a card-carrying member of the Ku Klux Klan, proud to serve his country and family as Grand Cyclops and absolutely, positively convinced that his path was righteous and true. But when C. P. Ellis was invited to serve on an open forum about school problems in Durham, South Carolina, he realized he needed to attend lest the white voice go unheard, and that's when things turned strange.
What happened during those intense 1970s charrette meetings is now the stuff of legend. Forced to collaborate with African-American civil rights activist Ann Atwater, whom he regarded as one of the meanest black women he had ever seen, the unlikely pair soon found common ground. It seems they both just wanted to help their people.
That meeting of minds was documented in The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South, a book by Osha Gray Davidson originally published in 1996. The message — that we all have more in common than we could ever imagine — remains relevant today and playwright Mark St. Germain's play, based on the book, had its world premiere in 2012. A.D. Players has scheduled Best of Enemies to run during Black History Month, with its opening day set for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
Actor Kevin Michael Dean is tackling the role of Ellis in this production, and we asked about the challenges that come with stepping into the shoes of such a hateful individual. "It’s really quite interesting because when you read it you project our own opinions. He’s the bad guy," says Dean. "But from his perspective he’s very much the hero. He’s fighting for what he believes to be right and true and worthy and it’s not until he interacts with Ann on this level that he realizes the differences aren’t as important as the similarities."
As the play unfolds and Ellis begins to experience a seachange in his belief system, we wondered what made Atwater so effective. Alice M. Gatling, who plays the feisty activist, says it begins with understanding the genesis of hate. "The seed sits there and ferments, and that's what Ann does. She shines the light on the actual root of hate," says Gatling. "Does she go into it thinking she’ll have a great impact on C. P. Ellis? Probably not."
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Gatling says that, for Atwater, everything about her behavior was rooted in love. "Not just love for the African-American race; it was a love that was bigger than that," says Gatling. "[She looked at] how do we address poverty and these issues affecting children. And she was able to work with that, that shifting she saw."
Kim Tobin-Lehl, who is directing the production, found a way to balance the '70s vibe of the era while also keeping the play updated for modern audiences. She's developed an amazing soundtrack to get us in the mood of the times: Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine," Dusty Springfield's "Son of A Preacher Man," Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Bad Moon Rising" and other toe tappers. Costume designer Danielle Hodgins is sticking to the '70s for the wardrobe, while Kevin Rigdon has chosen a more abstract way to handle lighting and scenic design, which keeps things moving during multiple scene changes.
Although Atwater died in 2016, and the historic event took place almost 50 years ago, some issues remain unresolved even today. "People need to come see this show because if you look at C. P. Ellis and Ann Atwater, you have the Grand Cyclops and the civil rights worker and if these two people in ten days could look each other in the eye and realize that what they have in common is far more important," says Dean. "That’s something that everyone needs to experience. Republican versus Democrat. Conservative versus liberal. What’s important is that these two people were able to focus on what they had in common. That is something that Houston and our culture need to be exposed to. It's very impactful."
Performances for Best of Enemies are scheduled January 12-February 4, The Jeannette and L.M. George Theater, 5420 Westheimer, 713-526-2721, adplayers.org, $20 to $70.