“To me, race relations are just the tip of the iceberg. Black, white; those are just skin colors. I think there’s a lot more to it than that. I think there’s something inside us, every one of us that freezes up when we see anybody different; it’s like a gate that slams down so we can feel safe behind it.” — Mary Ellis in “Best of Enemies”

Those words of the wife of a Ku Klux Klan leader resonate as clearly in current times as they do in the 1971 setting of Best of Enemies.

It’s a clarity not lost on those involved in New Stage Theatre’s regional premiere of the drama, which opens Tuesday for a two-week run.

Based on Osha Gray Davidson’s best-selling book, The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South, the play by Mark St. Germain is the true story about the relationship between a KKK Grand Cyclops and an African-American Civil Rights activist during school desegregation more than 40 years ago in Durham, N.C.

More recently, a bitter election battle, name-calling and the insulating bubbles of social media have fed a landscape of separation, with differences magnified and group hatred, anger and fear closer to the surface.

“My eyes opened up to how polarized we can be,” New Stage artistic director Francine Thomas Reynolds said. “When I chose the play (in January 2016), I thought I was choosing a play that was historical, and it is. … But people are still feeling frustrated. They feel like they can’t get ahead.”

In Best of Enemies, KKK’s C.P. Ellis and Civil Rights activist Ann Atwater, strong voices in their respective communities, are brought together by community organizer Bill Riddick to co-chair Durham’s Save Our Schools charrette, to work through the community’s crisis and coming change. They face their own prejudices in the process.

“How do people who are on such opposite sides come together, listen to each other, talk to each and understand each other?” Reynolds said. “This play shows that. And if it weren’t true, you wouldn’t believe it.”

Marci J. Duncan, in her New Stage debut as Ann Atwater, sees a parallel between the charrette in the drama and today’s rambunctious town hall meetings with citizens yelling their demands at their city and state leaders.

“You can imagine that same type of …,” she takes a deep breath, “I must say this. … I need to get this out.”

“The only way to really know another person is to listen to him or her,” Duncan said, “to know how they think and to know why they think that way. That’s one of Ann’s lines.”
C.P. and Ann ultimately reach an understanding by being open enough to hear the similarities in one another.

“They take it further and those similarities get the job done,” she said.

Yohance Myles noted his character Bill Riddick’s words, “We’re here to say everything we feel, but we’re also here to listen.”

His college-educated character must put that aside for the exchange of raw emotion between his co-chairs as they inch toward solutions and the best way forward for the community.

In the play, C.P. Ellis’ initial motivation is to keep an eye on the charrette, even sabotage it, to keep things the way they have always been, said Rus Blackwell, who returns to New Stage in the role.

“As fate would have it … they were forced to pay attention to each other,” he said. “They were forced by circumstance, and that’s the difference in today and then. We don’t pay attention to anything. We pay attention to 140 characters.

“When you pay attention to somebody, you start to find out that you have common areas,” he said. “What the whole thing is about anyway, it’s about class. It’s not about race. And if that’s not about today, I don’t know what is.”

Duncan recalled an interview with C.P. Ellis from her research.

“He said it always amazed him, when he was able to see the truth, to see how willing people are to believe something that they know is not true. And good Lord, is that not — all caps — today? It’s a direct parallel.”

“How it’s so relevant today — this whole story — is that it seems like our country, especially now, is so polarized,” said Jessica Wilkinson, who plays C.P. Ellis’s wife, Mary. “We don’t listen to each other, but if we did, just like they did, you would see that we have similarities. And that’s what binds people.”

Several pre-show panels and post-show Q&As will keep the conversation going. The William Winter Institute on Racial Reconciliation coordinates the first panel on Tuesday.

Von Gordon, panel moderator and youth engagement coordinator with the institute, described the work at its heart — building trusting relationships as a bridge strong enough to bear hard truths, and embrace of the individual and his or her story.

“In building relationships and sharing stories, we’re able to see each other as more fully human, rather than stereotypes and preconceived notions,” he said.

The hope is a dialogue can prime audiences for a more nuanced view, and the lessons they can take forward.

The dialogue is not talking at each other, “but just being heard and being able to speak your truth and knowing that people are listening and understanding,” said Portia Espy, director of community building at the institute.

“There’s been a lot of negativity, especially in light of the recent election,” she said. “It has been more evident to people that our country is still divided in a lot of ways. But there are those stories out there about people coming together, and this is one of them.”

Production Performances

7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays at
New Stage Theatre, 1100 Carlisle St., Jackson. Tickets are $28/$22 seniors and students, group discounts available; www.newstagetheatre.com or 601-948-3531

New Stage Theatre Dialogues

“Best of Enemies Race and Redemption in the South”
Tuesday: 6:30 p.m panel by William Winter Institute on Racial Reconciliation; 9:15 p.m. post-performance Q&A
March 1: 6:45 p.m. panel by Millsaps College Department of History; 9:15 p.m. post-performance Q&A
March 7: 6:30 p.m. panel by Margaret Walker Center at Jackson State University; 9:15 p.m. post-performance Q&A
March 8: 9:15 p.m. post-performance Q&A

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Sherry Lucas is a veteran feature writer in Jackson whose stories spread the word on Mississippi's food, arts, culture and communities. A lifelong Mississippian and University of Mississippi graduate, Lucas has decades of daily newspaper experience. She is now a freelance writer and contributes regularly to Mississippi Today.