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Acacia Finds Common Ground in 'The Best of Enemies'

Mar. 21, 2017
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Derrion Brown, Lori Woodall, Ryan Schaufler -- Photo credit: Laura Heise

The saying, “truth is stranger than fiction” immediately comes to mind when considering the main characters in Acacia Theatre’s The Best of Enemies. Imagine this: a close friendship between a white Ku Klux Klan leader and a black civil rights activist that happened some 40 years ago in the deep South.

Based on a true story, The Best of Enemies delivers one of the most spine-tingling, gut-twisting and heart-wrenching theatrical experiences in town. Under the tight direction of Erin Nicole Eggers, the play is sadly relevant to the current unease of Milwaukee’s black-white relations.

The Best of Enemies, written by Mark St. Germain, opens in 1971 with a Klan meeting speech by C.P. Ellis, a North Carolinian who became the Grand Cyclops of a Klan chapter. As Ellis talks, images behind him—projected on a set of three oversized screens—express the Klan’s agenda. Some examples are signs reading: “Help Wanted: No Catholics Need Apply” and “No dogs, Negroes or Mexicans.” 

A federal mediator is sent to assist in the court-order desegregation of schools. He prods Ellis to co-chair a local committee with Ann Atwater, a black civil rights activist. At first, he flatly refuses. She isn’t eager to accept the assignment, either. She tells Bill Riddick, the mediator, “When I see a snake, I don’t talk to it. I cut its head off.” She goes on to say that she gets the same feeling when encountering “crackers like C.P.” Riddick (played with an unshakeable confidence and poise by Derrion Brown) remains undeterred. 

The road to racial reconciliation takes two hours, but suspense keeps the audience riveted. In the Acacia production, a real-life married couple plays the main characters of C.P. and Ann (Ryan Schaufler and Lori Woodall). Their acting chops are evident in every gesture, glance or sentence spoken by their adversarial characters. 

Brief moments of humor relieve the play’s tension. When C.P. tries to convince Ann that the Bible allows slavery, she shoots back, “C.P., if Jesus walked in here tomorrow, you would string him up because he’s a Jew.”

Eventually, their pre-meeting conversations reveal common ground, such as a lack of money and education (C.P.’s schooling ended after eighth grade; Ann had to drop out less than two years later), and a deep love for their children. Outright hate turns into a grudging respect and, eventually, into a lifelong friendship. 

Their verbal sparring is supported by fine supporting actors and a group of a dozen or so black and white teens serve in several capacities, such as community members or a gospel choir. The combination of strong acting, music and projections makes this a not-to-be-missed event.

Through March 26 at Concordia University’s Todd Wehr Auditorium, 12800 N. Lake Shore Drive, Mequon. For tickets, call 414-744-5995 or visit AcaciaTheatre.com.

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