‘BEST OF ENEMIES’: Westside Theatre Foundation to debut ‘meaningful’ play Friday at The Strand
Published 10:30 pm Sunday, February 4, 2024
Jack Burns attended a show at the New Stage Theatre in Jackson entitled “Best of Enemies.” This would seem a likely outing for Burns. He is the founder of the Westside Theatre Foundation in Vicksburg and has directed many productions at The Strand.
After watching the performance, which was based on a true story and adapted from the book “The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South” by Osha Gray Davidson, Burns knew this was a play he wanted to bring to his hometown, because “Best of Enemies” had a powerful message – one that he hoped would start a conversation on the driving forces behind racism.
The story takes place in Durham, N.C. in 1971 during the height of desegregation and focuses on the unlikely relationship between a Black civil rights activist, Ann Atwater, and a local KKK member, C.P. Ellis.
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And while the story is compelling, the nature and language of the play made it challenging to find actors, Burns said.
“For years and years, I tried to find actors. This is a very intense racially charged story about segregation in the South and civil rights activists trying to desegregate schools,” he said. Add to that, there are racial slurs riddled all throughout the script, so many shied away from spouting out offensive language even in a theatrical setting.”
This year, however, Burns was able to find actors willing to participate and beginning at 7:30 p.m. Friday, “Best of Enemies” will open at The Strand Theatre, 717 Clay St., in Vicksburg.
“The Best of Enemies” is a four-person play written by Mark St. Germain. Crory Lawton will be portraying C.P. Ellis, while Cathy Sanford takes on the role of Ann Atwater.
During the play, the unlikely pair are brought together when an out-of-town community organizer, Bill Riddick – who is played by Charlie Tubbs III – is sent to oversee the Durham charette (an urban-planning task force).
Renee Irons plays Ellis’ wife, Mary.
Of the four characters in the play, C.P. is probably the hardest to portray. And Lawton admitted he has struggled in the role.
“C.P. is absolutely the worst type of racist,” he said. “So, channeling him is channeling hate that I don’t know how to truly dive
into with that character. It’s a dark place to need to hate someone that bad. And for the character, C.P. needs to be able to hate somebody to make sense of where he is in society.”
Playing C.P. has taken its toll, Lawton said, but he is reminded every time they are done rehears- ing, that he and C.P. are not one and the same.
“It does not get easier even with people I love and trust on that stage,” Lawton said, “But they (the cast members) have supported me and hugged me at the end of every rehearsal.”
So, with a character as repulsive as C.P. — why would Lawton want to portray him?
“This one (show) has a chance of being something meaningful,” he said. “I’ve played a few parts in different plays Jack has put on, but this one really attracted me because it will give us a chance to begin a conversation that will ask some of the hard questions about the prejudices that we don’t even question.”
In addition to introspection, Lawton was also referring to the opportunity audience members will have after the production. Burns said the lights will be turned up and all those interested can discuss the show and share their perspectives.
Like Burns, Sanford also attended a New Stage performance of “Best of Enemies,” and because it made such an impact, she said, when Burns asked if she would be interested in taking on the role of Atwater, she immediately said ‘“yes.’”
“It was a definite, yes, it (the play) was so powerful,” Sanford said.
And like all those involved with the show, Sandford is hoping “Best of Enemies” will make an impact on those who come to watch, even if it is a small one.
“If nothing else I hope they can self-reflect, because any time racial issues come up, the first thing the person does is become defensive and I’m talking any race across the board,” Sanford said. “And if we (the cast) bring out something that hits a nerve, we don’t want people getting mad, we want them to sit with it for a moment and figure out why it is affecting them that way
and just work on that.”
Tubbs said he hopes audience members will take away the importance of embracing change.
“Change is uncomfortable for a lot of people, and they are used to things staying the same and we don’t like to live in the uncomfortable spaces (in our lives),” Tubbs said. “So, we fight, and we kick against change, but I believe that God designed all of us for change and we should be comfortable with it. Change belongs to God, and he is always trying to push us towards
it. So, I just hope people can learn how to embrace change.”
Irons said this is a show no one has “taken lightly,” as is a difficult journey to go on.
“And I’m so grateful to my fellow cast and crew members for the level of trust and friendship we have with one another. There’s
much vitriol in this story, but in the end, it’s a tale of transformation and hope.”
In addition to Friday night’s opening performance, “Best of Enemies” will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 10, Friday,
Feb. 16, and Saturday, Feb. 17, as well as at 4 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 11 and Sunday, Feb. 18. Tickets are $15 and are available at the door. Advance tickets are available at Highway 61 Coffeehouse.