‘Best of Enemies’ spurs tough dialogue on stage and off

Laura Berman
The Detroit News

She’s a civil rights activist, a single mother, a woman of passion and rightful grievances. He’s an Exalted Cyclops from the Durham, N.C., chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, hurling racial epithets as if they were balls of fire. “That man doesn’t just hate: he wants to kill,” she says.

They meet as foes, pitted against each other in a charged battle over a school desegregation order, on a tiny stage for the next two weekends, at the Matrix Theatre in southwest Detroit. He spews.

She stands up to him, unafraid. And gradually, as his friends desert him and his wife dies, he recognizes their common humanity and, even, mutual respect and friendship.

For 85 minutes, in a play called “Best of Enemies,” a racially bifurcated cast (two black people, two white) act out hatred, mutual distrust, disappointment, joint hopes for their children, and the never-quite-spoken sense of being on the cusp of change in 1971.

That all translates rather neatly, in 2015, as we feel our way through another era of change.

Acting out a drama from the civil rights era in Detroit, a city with its own long history of de facto segregation and anger, and decades of trying to bridge the gap, isn’t necessarily a soothing way to spend an evening.

And the tiny Matrix Theatre is using what turns out to be a modern fairy tale as a stage for its own efforts to reach and touch and — in the jargon of the moment — “engage” its audience in a conversation afterward.

Last weekend, a talk about gentrification and mass transit. This Sunday: a conversation about how far we’ve come since 1971. (For tickets:

The idea that just talking can help break down barriers between people seems obvious, even if the audiences that buy tickets at the 45-seat Matrix are probably already the kind of people who are open to civic engagement.

The play’s diverse cast and theme are attracting a racially mixed audience, which means that “the conversation” isn’t likely to be a monologue spoken by people who already see the world through the same lens.

“There’s something about the arts that provides a wonderful way to open up people, to make them vulnerable and willing to share a little bit more,” says Steve Spreitzer, CEO of the Michigan Roundtable, an organization that’s involved in Sunday’s after-play conversation.

Men in red hoods and costumes seem scarcer these days. Online comment boards and voice mail have replaced midnight cross-burnings, but the hostility is always lurking, real and dangerous.

Even the actor who plays civil rights activist Ann Atkinson hesitated to take on a play that confronted the ugliness of a Ku Klux Klan leader’s toxic beliefs head-on.

“I had some apprehension at first,” says Katie Fullerton, who works full time as a social worker, when she is not acting on the weekends.

What won her over, she says, was that the play is at once a fantastic but true story.

In real life, relationships rarely hinge on epiphanies or overnight conversions to the other’s point of view. But in the real life story that’s the basis of “Best of Enemies,” the impossible was true. That grounding in fact isn’t just a useful plot device, but a reminder to those of us acting in real life that anyone — even a KKK certified hater — might become an agent of change.

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