When a staged reading of the play “The Best of Enemies” occurs at Hayti Heritage Center on Sunday, a story born in Durham will finally come home.
In recounting the story of real-life residents Ann Atwater, a civil rights activist, and the late C.P. Ellis, a Klansman when he and Atwater met, the play depicts “two people with very strident voices coming from two different places, just polar opposites,” said actor Trevor Johnson. He’ll portray community organizer Bill Riddick, who helped bring Atwater and Ellis together in 1971.
The differences that first divided them led to Atwater and Ellis working together to desegregate Durham schools.
“They were able to look at each other and find some common ground, and to realize that they were really the same people. They were family,” Johnson said. “That’s nothing short of a miracle.”
Atwater will celebrate her 78th birthday July 1. When she reflects on the past, her thoughts affirm Johnson’s.
“You can change things if you work together,” she said from her room in a north Durham rehabilitation and nursing center. “If you’ve got God in your heart, God will change everything for you.
“That’s what happened to me and C.P.,” she said.
Atwater has seen “The Best of Enemies” before, but she had to go out of town to do it. The play, written by Mark St. Germain and based on Osha Gray Davidson’s book of the same title, debuted at the Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Mass., in 2011.
Atwater is excited about the play’s local premiere, directed by Geraldyne Barbour. “I haven’t really been able to sleep much since they told me it’s coming to Durham,” she said. She plans to be at Hayti for the performance, as does St. Germain.
Three of the play’s original four actors – veteran stage, television and film performers – will reprise their roles: Aisha Hinds (Atwater), John Bedford Lloyd (Ellis) and Susan Wands, who plays Ellis’ wife, Mary.
All of the actors, including Johnson, are “performing on their own dime” – “a wonderful tribute” in itself, said Lynn Harris, who chairs the St. Joseph’s Historic Foundation’s board of directors, which oversees the Hayti Center.
“Mark St. Germain is also remarkable in that he’s not charging us a royalty or anything to do this. The only condition was that this would be a benefit for Ann,” Harris said. Along with Atwater, Harris hopes to see Ellis’ daughter, Vicky Lewis; Riddick, and others with Durham ties referenced in the play in the audience on Sunday.
“It’s important for our story to be told in our hometown,” said Harris. “By sharing our history – and this play tells our history – we learn. We learn just how fortunate we are, just how far we’ve come and how far we have to go.”
The Hayti center’s new executive director, Angela Lee, picks up that theme, noting there’s “a lot of history on this corner” where the facility stands.
In connection with other events Hayti is presenting this year, “The Best of Enemies” is “living history,” Lee said.
“It’s an awesome thing to be able to recognize and commemorate those people who were part of our history while they’re still here,” she said.