A Change that Changed Durham: THE BEST OF ENEMIES at Manbites Dog

Derrick Ivey and Lakeisha Coffey in THE BEST OF ENEMIES at MDT. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

Derrick Ivey and Lakeisha Coffey in THE BEST OF ENEMIES at MDT. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

From my review in CVNC:

2013 has already been an extraordinary year in theatre for the Triangle, but one of the most powerful productions of the year has come near the end. Through December 21, Manbites Dog Theater is presenting The Best of Enemies, by Mark St. Germain, who based his excellent play on Osha Gray Davidson’s book of the same title, which laid out the amazing story of the confrontation and eventual friendship between Ann Atwater, a black civil rights activist, and C.P. Ellis, a white Ku Klux Klansman, during Durham’s struggles with school desegregation in the early 1970s. An American story of truth and reconciliation, it is beautifully directed by Joseph Megel, who has previously demonstrated unusual skill at dramatizing the humanity behind the ideas of race and class struggle.

READ FULL REVIEW HERE.

Thaddaeus Edwards and Lakeisha Coffey as Bill Riddick and Ann Atwater. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

Thaddaeus Edwards as Bill Riddick and Coffey as Ann Atwater. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

Elisabeth Lewis Corley as Mary Ellis, and Thaddaeus Edwards as Bill Riddick. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

Elisabeth Lewis Corley as Mary Ellis, and Thaddaeus Edwards as Bill Riddick. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

See this show if you can. It ranks very high among the many great accomplishments of Durham’s finest, feistiest theatre. Manbites Dog reports that tickets are going very fast. They have added two shows, but don’t wait to order tickets.

http://manbitesdogtheater.org   919-682-3343.

At the moment of transformative change: Coffey, Ivey and Edwards in Manbites Dog's THE BEST OF ENEMIES. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

At the moment of transformative change: Coffey, Ivey and Edwards, directed by Joseph Megel in Manbites Dog’s THE BEST OF ENEMIES. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

Ivey on Ice Skates, and Other Pleasures in THE HOMOSEXUALS at Manbites

UPDATE: DUE TO POPULAR DEMAND, THE RUN OF THIS SHOW HAS BEEN EXTENDED THROUGH MAY 25. PLAYWRIGHT PHILIP DAWKINS WILL BE PRESENT FOR A POST-SHOW CONVERSATION WITH DIRECTOR JEFF STORER ON FRIDAY, MAY 25.

The play that’s running through May 18, closing out Manbites Dog Theater‘s jubilant 25th season, may be the very best I’ve seen in all their years. A script without a false note, The Homosexuals provides opportunity for extraordinary ensemble acting by several of the Triangle’s most consistently fine actors, under the direction of Jeff Storer, MDT’s co-founder and professor in Duke’s Theater Studies program. Philip Dawkins’ bright 2011 play has a moving story, with likable characters who engage in delicious dialogue during believable situations as they all search for love and happiness. And, it is all about being “gay, gay, GAY!”

Evan (Ryan Brock) and British Mark (Thaddaeus Edwards) meet to discuss real estate and other important things. Photo: Alan Dehmer

Evan (Ryan Brock) and British Mark (Thaddaeus Edwards) meet to discuss real estate and other important things. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

The first three contenders for best-ever at Manbites that sprang to mind were The Vanishing Point, from 2007; God’s Ear, from 2010; and The Brothers Size, from 2012. Jeff Storer directed two of these (Joseph Megel the third) but Derrick Ivey–who is fabulous, darling, as theatre director Peter in The Homosexuals–had something to do with the excellence of each of the earlier three, through lead roles and/or set design. He’s crucial here, though inseparable from the rest of the ensemble.

The multi-talented Ivey also designed costumes and the versatile set for The Homosexuals, in which the action moves backwards in time. Simple pieces are rearranged as needed for the scenes–the same objects can become beds or sofas or benches–and behind them in a dimly lit arc against the back wall wait the props and actors of the future scenes, scenes have already occurred and that form part of the collective memory for the friends we’re watching on stage at the moment. Ranged behind, out of reach of fear and struggle and joy, the characters off stage observe their past unfold with attentive tenderness. Our observation of their observation tinges the fresh immediacy of the situations with a poignant hue: This is a lovely stage device to augment to lovely, transparent acting.

The first scene opens with Evan (Ryan Brock, pictured left, above) waiting for Peter (Derrick Ivey) at a skating rink. Watching the upright Ivey, who usually does not flail around on stage, make his entrance on ice skates, flamboyant and teetering, is alone worth the ticket price. But everything after that is even better.

The year is 2010, a decade after the young Evan arrived in the big city. He left in the hinterlands a family who couldn’t love him when he came out as gay. He arrived, like so many before him, scared, confused, hurt, poor, and ready for the big adventure. Ryan Brock could have been built for this role. He’s ridiculously good-looking (and still young enough to look very young) with eyes that could melt an iceberg, and he doesn’t waste any energy on pointless moment, saving it for real action.  Almost in a daze upon his arrival, Evan goes to a candy store (!) and meets Michael (beautifully played by Jeffrey Moore), a really nice guy who invites him to a party, where he meets the close circle of friends who become his friends immediately. Except for Tam (Amber Wood, tough, wise-assed and affectionate), who marries British Mark so he can get a green card (Thaddaeus Edwards, impeccable whether his trousers are on or off), it’s a circle of men, gay men. Sometimes and for a while they may be lovers, but they are always friends–to such a degree that they constitute a family.

But we get all that gradually, through the six scenes, each centered on Evan’s interactions with a different friend, and each taking us back two years, until we arrive at the fateful party in 2000, when Evan meets everyone, and we get a glimpse of what drove him away from his former home. In addition to those mentioned above, the group includes Mark (Gregor McElvogue, charming, eloquent, irascible and a little daunting) and Collin (Chris Burner, very funny and endearing). We learn something of everyone’s struggles and adventures, especially in love and lust, and while we don’t watch them grow into the kind honest humans they become, we do get to see how they got that way. Damned if it isn’t about enough to renew faith in humanity. Plus, there are a lot of fine physiques on view.

At the party: British Mark (Thaddaeus Edwards) and Collin (Chris Burner) dish with Tam (Amber Wood). Photo: Alan Dehmer.

At the party: British Mark (Thaddaeus Edwards) and Collin (Chris Burner) dish with Tam (Amber Wood). Photo: Alan Dehmer.

Big in Every Way: THE BROTHERS SIZE at Manbites Dog Theater through September 29

Alphonse Nicholson, Thaddaeus Edwards, and Kashif Powell (background)
in THE BROTHERS SIZE. Photo: Michael McCullough.

Leaving the theater on opening night of The Brothers Size, I had the oddest sensation of entering an imaginary world as I stepped into the cozy bright lobby. Inside the dark theater, we’d been immersed in a rough reality, overwashed with waves of a mystic reality. Subsumed as a group in the rhythmic drumming, our hearts beat together with those of the characters before us, locked with them into the sustained intensity of their struggles. Outside, there were cakes and wine, smart chat, separate parties. Life seemed pale beside this art.

The Brothers Size (which runs about 100 minutes without intermission) is part of a trilogy by Tarell Alvin McCraney. It debuted in 2007, when the author was only 27 years old. It’s an amazing script, in terms of character, story, intensity, clarity and inventiveness. Some may find elements of the language distasteful, but it all seemed appropriate to the people and situation. A white person could not have written this, though, and there is no fashionable cross-race casting. These three characters are black men, as well as representing three of the Yoruba orisa, and they need to be played by black men.

Ogun Size is a hard man, like his namesake, and has built himself a car repair business. His main concerns are survival and protection, and he comes on singing, like a work chant, “this road is rough.” Kashif Powell, in a coverall, plays Ogun with almost unbearable rigid force. His younger brother, Oshoosi Size, has recently gotten out of prison and is living with Ogun. Oshoosi is concerned with freedom—with being and feeling free—and J. Alphonse Nicholson gives him a fluid, willowy physicality. (Jeremy V. Morris will portray this role in the second half of the play’s run.) Elegba—deity of the crossroads, and a trickster—is Oshoosi’s friend from prison. Thaddaeus Edwards, all in black, with a black sequined belt, gives the seductive Elegba a sly, knowing look as he glides in and out the scenes, instigating.

Working with director Joseph Megel, and with the aid of drummer Teli S. Shabu, the brothers engage in a dance of thought and feeling, with outbursts of song. They dance all around the idea of freedom. Do you live hard or live easy? Prison is not the only lockup. You can be stuck like a stone, unfree in other ways. Some you can escape, but you can never escape your brother. He will always be your brother: You will call for him; you will let him go; you will not leave him behind—and his inescapability is another kind of freedom.

Near the show’s end, the two brothers Size sum up the method for reconciling their differing characters, which Elegba has set at odds. In Derrick Ivey’s bleak set made of rope and old tires, they put on Otis Redding, and “Try a Little Tenderness” blossoms from their throats. Young girls are not the only ones who get weary on the rough road. Even a man hard as iron needs that balm.

This article was first published in The Independent Weekly, appearing in print with the headline “Tall tales and karaoke nights.” It is available on www.indyweek.com. The original contained an author error, corrected on the Indy site and above. Correction: Running time is about 100 minutes (not 140 minutes).

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