The Best of Enemies
by Mira Hirsch, Director of THE BEST OF ENEMIES
It’s 1971, and the government is sending an employee by the name of Bill Riddick to Durham, NC, to work on the issue of school desegregation by holding a “charette” – a series of town hall-type meetings between people of differing points of view. To kick the issue into high gear, he convinces an outspoken African American civil rights worker named Ann Atwater to co-chair the charette with a man named C.P. Ellis, who just happens to be the Grand Cyclops of the Durham chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. This is the premise of Mark St. Germain’s THE BEST OF ENEMIES, opening February 1st at Theatrical Outfit in Downtown Atlanta. And if it weren’t based on a true story, it would probably seem too outrageous to be believable. But it happened, and the outcomes were extraordinary in more ways than one.
THE BEST OF ENEMIES is a perfect play choice for Theatrical Outfit, a theater housed in the former Herren’s Restaurant, which has the distinction of being the first Downtown Atlanta restaurant to voluntarily desegregate in 1962. The location is an obvious choice for Artistic Director Tom Key to make for a theater company whose mission is to produce “Stories that Stir the Soul,” featuring themes that enrich and enliven the civic discourse -- with an emphasis on stories rooted in the history and culture of the American South.
While it deals with issues of Civil Rights, THE BEST OF ENEMIES is far from a history lesson. It is the story of a relationship born in conflict and dissent that grows in very unlikely directions. It is the story of our still-evolving social climate here in the south. It is the story of two unlikely heroes who are “heroic” not for displaying qualities that are superhuman, but for acting in ways that are incredibly human, in the best possible sense of that word.
And it would be a mistake to look at the issues in the play as simply “history,” when many of the same issues still plague us more than 40 years later. Just last month, the Atlanta Journal Constitution featured a story about a recent state Department of Education finding that the rate of expulsion among Georgia’s black students is double, or even triple, that of whites who commit the same infractions. This exact topic comes up in THE BEST OF ENEMIES, in dialogue which takes place in 1971.
Late in the play, Bill Riddick remarks that the work “…is not done. Not even close.” The AJC report reminded me that even forty years later, we’re still not done. But plays like THE BEST OF ENEMIES demonstrate what’s possible. And that the small shifts made by seemingly ordinary individuals do matter. And that as human beings, we are indeed capable of change.
For more information about THE BEST OF ENEMIES and to buy tickets, please visit http://www.theatricaloutfit.org.