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Theater review: ‘Best of Enemies’ a seemingly perfect production

By Roy C. Dicks

Correspondent December 9, 2013

  • What: “The Best of Enemies” by Mark St. GermainWhere: Manbites Dog Theater, 703 Foster St., Durham

    When: 8:15 p.m. Dec. 12-14 and 18-21; 2 p.m. Dec. 15

    Cost: $10-$18 ($5 student rush)

    Info: 919-682-3343 or

It’s rare to find a theatrical production that seems perfect in all aspects, but when experienced, it becomes a standard by which to judge all others. Manbites Dog Theater Company’s “The Best of Enemies” is one of these.

Based on Osha Gray Davidson’s book, Mark St. Germain’s 2011 play tells the gripping true story of how the Durham city schools were integrated in 1971. Tensions ran so high over the court-ordered desegregation that federal mediator Bill Riddick was sent in to set up a town meeting, bringing blacks and whites together for a solution.

Two strong-willed opponents attended: Ann Atwater, a black single mother turned activist, and C.P. Ellis, a high-ranking Ku Klux Klan member. When their feisty confrontations became nearly violent, Riddick boldly challenged them to co-chair a steering committee. Atwater and Ellis reluctantly agreed to make sure their sides were fully represented. Despite seemingly irreconcilable differences, they begin to find common links in their poor backgrounds, their parenting problems and their marginalization as lower-class citizens. A begrudging respect developed, leading to their joint effort to make integration work.

Derrick Ivey’s Ellis is chilling when spewing racist vitriol with frightening conviction and heartbreaking when realizing the harm his attitudes have caused. Lakeisha Coffey makes Atwater a fearless force, extremely moving in her portrayal of Atwater’s willingness to fight the daunting odds. Thaddaeus Edwards gives Riddick the right balance of innocent idealism and calculated opportunism in such career-making circumstances. As Ellis’ weary but still-loving wife Mary, Elisabeth Lewis Corley plays against stereotype with a quiet, sensible understanding of what drives Ellis.

Director Joseph Megel expertly unifies the quickly shifting scenes into a tightly paced 100 minutes, sweeping the audience along with breathtaking power. He allows appropriate humor to balance the drama as the play builds to its emotionally draining climax. Derrick Ivey, doubling as set designer, provides inventive swiveling panels and eye-catching school bulletin boards (which also serve as screens for video projections). His set is beautifully enhanced by Andrew Parks’ dramatic lighting and Alex Maness’ atmospheric sound design.

This is a production not to be missed, a testament to theater’s ability to entertain while also educating, and to Manbites Dog’s longtime commitment to socially relevant material.

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