Over the last 12 years, Provision Theater Company has produced numerous plays that have been nominated for Joseph Jefferson awards, including their critically acclaimed productions of The Hiding Place, Cotton Patch Gospel, Shadowlands, A Christmas Memory and The Thanksgiving Visitor, Beast on the Moon and The Spitfire Grill.
One of Chicago’s few non-profit equity companies devoted to producing works of hope and reconciliation, Provision Theater will conclude its 2015-2016 season with a world-premiere adaptation of Best of Enemies by Mark St. Germain. The play will run April 29 – June 5 with performances on Fridays & Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 3:00 p.m. at Provision Theater, 1001 W. Roosevelt Rd., Chicago, IL 60608.
Inspired by the best-selling book by Osha Gray Davidson, Best of Enemies is the true story about the relationship between Ann Atwater, an African-American civil rights activist, and C.P. Ellis, a Grand Cyclops of the KKK, during the desegregation of the Durham, NC schools in 1971. Best of Enemies exposes the poison of prejudice in the hearts of Atwater and Ellis who, by facing each other, are forced to face the worst–and best–in themselves. Best of Enemies features Broadway’s Felicia Fields as Atwater and Provision Theater Company Member Rod Armentrout as Ellis and will be directed by Provision Theater Founding Artistic Director Timothy Gregory.
I recently caught up with Best of Enemies’ stars Felicia Fields and Rod Armentrout to discuss their roles in the play.
April Neill: Felicia Fields, tell us a little about your character…
Felicia Fields: Ann Atwater is an activist; she is what I would refer to as a tough, thick-skinned activist–one of those kind of people that is a born leader. She has a charismatic personality, so people follow her–they’re scared of her to some degree. They reverence her because she has that nickname “Roughhouse Annie”. To come up against the Ku Klux Klan, you have to be kind of rough.
Neill: What is it like play a historical, real life character…
Fields: It’s interesting because when you see footage of characters, it enlightens you a lot more to the reality of what you’re doing. There are several clips about who [Ann] is and listening to her talk about herself is very helpful.
Neill: On the strong language in the show…
Fields: This is a great cast of people, and on the first day we talked about the “n” word–if you’re going to tell a story you have to tell it right.
Neill: What lessons can be learned about racial divisiveness from BOE?
Fields: I really think that what happens a lot on a situation of racism is people need to walk in other people’s shoes. It’s very difficult to understand the plight of a different race when you don’t have the same problem. We go through things even today. People say “Slavery is over; why are you still upset?”. Well, it’s not quite over. It’s an important thing then and it’s just as important now, and it’s not just because of black and white. It’s about racism in any way. It’s important that we open our minds to educate ourselves about other races and other people.
Neill: How has racism affected you and how have you experienced it?
Fields: I’ve run across it on tour where you could feel the racism in the room. There’s a rejection that you feel. You’re in a place where there’s not a sense of “welcome”. People say get over it, but it’s actually not over. Something that I thought about when I was looking at a clip was that in 1970 I was in high school but I did not feel the same energy that Ann Atwater felt because I was not in North Carolina. It’s not always the active racism of where you’re located. I go through this script and I listen to a lot of things being said but I didn’t hear them in the 70s in Chicago.
In 1969, I went from grammar school to high school and we were part of a program called Permissive Transfer where they integrated schools. Once you get in a different environment there’s a different energy. I was very bitter with my parents for sending me to Von Stuben, which took almost two hours to get to school, but it was the best thing that could have happened to me. As a result of learning that we’re all just people and because of my personality, our energies intertwined. I insisted that when I had children they would not go to school where it was just one race, and they would do that with their children and so on and so on.
April Neill: Rod Armentrout, tell us a little about your character…
Rod Armentrout: [C.P. Ellis] was a guy who grew up very poor and around folks in that part of the country and that time in history that had a very specific perspective on people different than them. He grew up around that and adopted that perspective and point of view. Maybe why he have into that was because of all the of the people that came before him that he trusted. At that point in his life, he had had a really tough road and I think he was looking for someone to blame and be responsible for his pain.
He was an unpleasant person if you were someone who didn’t think the way he did. He went through this miraculous transformation; he made a big journey in a short amount of time. He was a big part of changing things for school integration in Durham during that time, along with Ann.
Neill: Can you relate to your role? What is it like playing a controversial real-life character?
Armentrout: It’s a real challenge. The first time I read the script and realized some of the words that were going to come out of my mouth was a little disconcerting. Because of where we are as a country and some of that tension still exists, to throw some of those words around and a give a voice to a bigoted perspective is hard. We have to bring truth to who these people were, and the truth is that’s who he was. You can’t show the transformation unless you start at point A and find your way to point b; you have to see that first part to know what’s changed.
Every time you have to embrace a character, as an actor I think about where you can find points of connection. There will be differences, but I have to find a place where the two of us come together. There’s always something that pushes you and expands you. This role is particularly taxing at times. It’s a challenge, because there always things that aren’t like me–but you just have to figure out how to communicate it truthfully.
Neill: What lessons can be learned about racial divisiveness from BOE?
Armentrout: There’s a little monologue that C.P.’s wife Mary has where she talks about division along racial lines is just the tip of the iceberg. We human beings don’t have to work very hard to find lines of demarcation. I happen to believe that’s at the root of all of our problems. My hope is you go to see anything is theater because you hope to escape and feel a little joy or you hope to be challenged. Maybe they’ll see journey that this character is able to make and think, “Maybe I could do that. If I made the choice, I could turn away from something that I know isn’t right.” Maybe it will provoke some sort of thought or self-examination. I don’t know if change is the goal, but for that short amount of time you want people to look inside and see themselves be moved by that kind of transformation.
Neill: Felicia Fields and Ron Armentrout, I appreciate your time and look forward to following your work in the future. Ticket prices for Best of Enemies are $30. Senior, student, and military discounts are available. Free parking is included, and groups of 10 or more receive 10% off (adult tickets only). Due to strong subject matter, Best of Enemies is not recommended for children 12 and under. Children under the age of 6 will not be permitted into the theater. For tickets, call the box office at 312-455-0066 or visit ProvisionTheater.org. Click here to get a sneak peek of Best of Enemies.