Best of Enemies Review - A Gripping Tale of Crossing Boundaries

 

Provision Theater closes its twelfth season with Best of Enemies, the story of an unlikely friendship inspired by a book by Osha Gray Davidson and written by Mark St. Germain. Based on true events, the play follows two bitter enemies—black community organizer Ann Atwater and KKK leader C.P. Ellis—who are forced to work together to improve schools in their hometown. Funny, provocative, and heartwarming in turn, Best of Enemies successfully tells a fascinating story with nuance and grace.

 

Rod Armentrout and Felicia Fields

 

Set in Durham in 1971, the story begins with visitor Bill Riddick convincing both Atwater and Ellis to attend the first meeting of his “charrette,” a roundtable discussion for members of the community to discuss the issue of desegregating local schools. Neither strong-willed individual is particularly pleased by Riddick’s silver tongue or the prospect of working with the other, but both agree to attend once they realize that the only way their voice will be heard is if they show up.

 

At first, the combination is explosive, with both parties spitting streams of insults at one another. Once Riddick persuades them to co-chair the charrette, however, the two slowly begin to find common ground. Each is struggling against the crippling force of poverty; each is fighting to defend their people and their family. Ultimately, the two develop a fast friendship and walk away different people than they were before they met.

 

Felicia Fields and Rod Armentrout

 

While the show’s premise may sound trite, the script handles the issues at hand well; it does not oversimplify, acknowledging the complexity of the situation and depicting the negative social and economic consequences of Atwater and Ellis’ willingness to compromise. In addition, the characters are well-rounded and flawed. Despite Ellis’ racist rhetoric, we easily sympathize with his struggle to provide for his family and connect with his wife Mary; although Atwater’s viewpoint is more in line with that of contemporary audiences, we still see glimpses of her hypocrisy and watch her temper get the better of her at times. In these ways, the play avoids becoming a simple feel-good story about overcoming racism; instead, it is a complicated exploration of prejudice, hate, friendship, and love that is deeply relevant in today’s racially-charged society.

 

Felicia Fields and Rod Armentrout

 

Chicago favorite Felicia Fields, who is best known for her Tony-nominated portrayal of Sofia in the Broadway and first touring company of The Color Purple, plays Ann Atwater; she brings a dry humor and a sense of steely determination to the outspoken civil rights advocate, in spite of a number of flubbed lines. Provision Theater company member Rod Armentrout is equally believable as a vitriolic KKK leader at the top of the show as he is as a humble and apologetic union member at the end. Randle Michael finds an excellent balance between his character’s cocky charm and his vulnerability, and Tosha Fowler is compelling as Ellis’ disenchanted wife.

 

Felicia Fields, Randle Michael, and Rod Armentrout

 

The design for the show is fairly basic. Projections by Ray Rehberg are key to establishing location and setting the mood, using historical photos and videos to help create the historical moment. While the set is minimal, much is achieved through clever blocking by director Timothy Gregory, who successfully creates distinct spaces onstage and also conveys symbolic meaning through movement. Music also features in key moments of the play, including gospel music and a touching rendition of “Amazing Grace.”

 

Rod Armentrout, Timothy Gregory, and Felicia Fields. Photos by Simon Sorin

 

Best of Enemies is a timely piece that conveys the idea that yes, even those of us separated by the widest of ideological divisions can bridge the gaps that separate us and create genuine human connections. In a country increasingly divided by political differences, this is an important message that would be too good to be believed if it weren’t told through a true story. Members of every race and ideology would be well-served to attend Best of Enemies at Provision Theater.

 

Ticket Information

The play will run April 29 - June 5 with performances on Fridays & Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 3:00 p.m. at Provision Theater, 1001 W. Roosevelt Rd., Chicago, IL 60608. Tickets available at 312-455-0066 or at the Provision Theater website.

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