The Best of Times
Mark St. Germain discusses his plays The Best of Enemies and Freud's Last Session.
His newest work, The Best of Enemies, now getting its world premiere at Barrington Stage Company, is based on the real-life story of C.P. Ellis, a Ku Klux Klan official, and Ann Atwater, a Durham, North Carolina woman, who engaged in a battle over school desegregation in the 1970s, with Ellis soon after becoming a civil rights activist. TheaterMania recently spoke with St. Germain about his work.
THEATERMANIA: What prompted you to write The Best of Enemies?
MARK ST. GERMAIN: I was really looking for something to write about, and while doing research, I came across this list on the Internet of great American heroes. I recognized everyone's name, but I didn't recognize C.P.Ellis. So I looked him up and I found some books about him, including one by Studs Terkel, and I realized his was a fascinating story. You tend to believe people don't change, but he is someone who really changed.
TM: How much did you know about the KKK before you started working on this project?
MSG: I did not know much about them, and it was interesting to find out the different reasons people joined it. There are so many varieties of prejudice in this country. Back in Durham, a lot of prejudice was economic, because there was a wealthy African-American community as well as a poorer one. Working on this play gave me insight into what's going on in people's minds about race in America. Just because a lot of white people were excited when President Obama was elected doesn't mean a lot of assumptions whites have about black people have changed.
TM: You're dealing in this play with fairly recent history, which means you have access to the real people, right?
MSG: Ann is still alive, and another character in the play, Bill Reddick, is still alive -- they're both coming up to see it -- so I was able to talk to them. C.P. is dead, but I was able to talk to his daughter. They were all very valuable.
TM: You chose to premiere the play at Barrington, as you did with many works, including Freud's Last Session. Why here and not New York?
MSG: I am very comfortable at Barrington; it's been my creative home for a long time. And Berkshire audiences are very smart and give really good feedback. And I think it's nice to be away from New York during the preview process. It's a little out of the critical eye, but it depends on who shows up. You never know.
TM: Freud's Last Session has had an extraordinarily long run and keeps extending. Are you surprised?
MSG: A little. But the thing I'm really happy about is that when we do audience surveys, we find 80 percent of people come from word of mouth. You can't ask for better than that. And I think a lot of people are fascinated by Freud and Lewis.
MSG: There is interest in doing it in California with the same actors and the same set, which would be exciting. It's astonishing that all the same people -- the actors, the creative team -- who did the first reading are still involved. Of course, I am hoping it will have a life around the country, and I am sure it will have other productions, but understandably, I am very attached to this one.
TM: The play came out of something you read in a book about Freud meeting with an Oxford don. Do you have other people read things and do research for you?
MSG: No, I do it all myself. It's not just that I love to read, but I would be afraid someone might miss something that might intrigue me. For example Camping with Henry with Tom was inspired by one sentence in a book about Henry Ford on a camping trip with Warren G. Harding. If another person read that, they might not have mentioned it.
MSG: On August 15, we're doing a reading at Barrington of my new play, Mrs. Lincoln's Séance, which concerns this spiritualist Mary Lincoln brought into the White House. And I'm researching three other things; we'll see which jumps out fastest. And I haven't done a musical in a while, and I would love to do another one if I find the right idea.