In an age when talking about race relations can seem both hopelessly old-fashioned and a lost cause, its refreshing to be reminded of Ann Atwater and C.P. Ellis.
Their story began to take shape and to make headlines in the early 70s, when Durham residents Ellis, a former Ku Klux Klan leader, and Atwater, a well-known black community organizer, were asked to co-chair a committee to address problems associated with desegregating Durham schools. Once sworn enemies, Ellis and Atwater became not only allies, but close friends. And their friendship became the subject of a book, then a documentary film and in 2011, a play.
That play, The Best of Enemies, was adapted from the book of the same title by Osha Gray Davidson, and just finished its most recent run, at the Florida Studio Theatre in Sarasota. Id love to see it performed here in Durham, home to Ellis until his death in 2005 and still home to Atwater, now in her late 70s and reportedly living in a nursing home.
But while Ive only been able to view a few video clips online for now, Im glad to have The Best of Enemies on my radar not only because previous performances at regional theaters in the Northeast have gotten glowing reviews, though thats impressive and great to see.
In this case, hearing about the play prompted me to find out more than the little I knew about Atwater and Ellis story. And the way I see it, sharing their story with audiences across the country couldnt be more timely.
In the first sentence of the acknowledgements in Davidsons book, he writes that he first read about Ellis and Atwaters friendship in Studs Terkels bestselling book Race. So why not go to the source, I thought.
What I found there were Atwater and Ellis own candid words about hard-won respect for each other, about attitudes on race and place that die hard. The excerpts from their decades-old interviews with Terkel, who died in 2008, are compelling to read because theyre real and at times, raw.
From talking about his thrilling moment of joining the Klan to his later epiphany that he and Atwater had identical problems, except her bein black and me bein white, Ellis revealed a range of emotions along with his capacity to grow and change.
Atwaters reflections are just as honest and moving, as she talked about encountering and standing up to Klansmen during her early days of working with Ellis, then later learning to accept and even trust whites all while being ostracized by some of her fellow Durhamites, both white and black.
I had to go back and pray and read Scripture to keep my mental stability, she told Terkel. There were some nights of cryin, scared to death, worried about my children. But I held it in. At the end, C.P. and I could lock hands and say we won.
For me, Atwater and Ellis real-life story of bonding, and of getting beyond everything they thought they knew about race, has particular resonance right now. Between Christmas and New Years, I went to a movie theater for the first time since last summer to see Django Unchained, my interest piqued by what Id heard and by a clip Id seen featuring two of the movies black stars, Samuel L. Jackson and Kerry Washington.
Its true that Django director Quentin Tarantino has never claimed he was making a historically accurate movie about slavery. Hes never said his goals for the film included deepening audiences understanding of slavery, its impact and its legacy.
But because as a nation, we tend to avoid or resist those topics instead of wrestling with them, I couldnt help but be disappointed as the more thoughtful, challenging and intriguing moments in Tarantinos movie were eclipsed by its bloodbath of an ending.
Among the highlights that are dimmed once the movies 20-minute-plus killing spree is under way is the friendship between the black slave Django (Jamie Foxx) and the white bounty hunter King Schultz (Christoph Waltz).
The Django and Broomhilda (Washington) love story, captivating because we still so rarely see convincing romances featuring a black man and a black woman, not to mention slaves, also gets lost in the bloodletting.
And the same goes for the psychological battle between Django and slave owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Even if its hard to suspend disbelief while youre watching it play out, their clash is riveting, simultaneously challenging stereotypes and trading in them.
In the end, at least for me, Tarantinos fiction rings false, too caught up in its spaghetti western/blaxploitation leanings to say much thats meaningful on race and how we can better relate to each other, regardless of it, in 2013. Maybe thats OK. Or maybe not.
What Im sure of is how thankful I am for the very real lives of Ann Atwater and C.P. Ellis, and the fact that their story is being told on stage a Durham story that has much to say about the potential of the human race, beyond black and white, to people everywhere it plays.