Joining the Klan had been the happiest moment of his life. At 23 years old, he’d finally found a purpose. He’d finally felt that he belonged.
He’d been born into poverty and had fought against it for as long as he could remember. He’d felt shunned and ridiculed in schoo; and had dropped out when his father died at only 48 years old. Thrust into adulthood, he’d struggled to earn a living and, like his father before him, he’d soon come to feel beaten down, chewed up and spit out.
But kneeling in a darkened room and vowing to uphold the principles of the Klan, he’d found himself embraced by a brotherhood of men who seemed to accept him just as he was.
He spoke in later life about how he’d been consumed with hatred in his youth. He’d hated his poverty, he’d hated his lack of education, he’d hated his sense of inferiority and insignificance. And he’d hated feeling overlooked by a society that seemed to keep its rewards always and forever out of his reach.
Looking back, he could see that he’d been consumed by this hate and that he’d desperately needed to give it an external focus.
“I had to hate somebody,” he said. “Hating America is hard to do because you can’t see it to hate it. You gotta have something to look at to hate.”
So he’d turned his hate on the “other,” on those who were unlike him in the most obvious and easily identifiable ways. He’d hated those who thought differently, who talked differently, who worshiped differently. But most of all he’d hated those who simply looked different. And, since he was a white man, the easiest “other” on whom to pin his hate had been the “n-----s” – his word, not mine.
I’m as uncomfortable using that word as you perhaps are almost seeing it in print. It is an offensive word. A highly charged and volatile word. It has been used to do a lot of damage. And it represents a world of hurt, resentment, degradation and oppression.
But I’m having to come to grips with that word.
In December I’ll portray former Klansman C.P. Ellis in Manbites Dog Theater’s production of “The Best of Enemies” – based on actual events that took place in Durham in 1971. And in each performance I’ll have to spew that word and more like it into the faces of two of my fellow actors: Thaddaeus Edwards and Lakeisha Coffey. I’m going to have to understand and to own C.P.’s hate – and all the words that come with it.
Underneath most hate, I think, is something unresolved or out of balance.
C.P.’s life had been riddled with struggle. And struggle is something everyone can understand on some level. So the key to embodying C.P.’s hate, for me, is to embrace his frustrations: inherited poverty, no prospects, unpaid bills, persistent health issues, long work days, low self-esteem, a severely disabled child, and the desire to provide and succeed while faced with a constant string of failures and rejections.
I don’t offer these up as excuses, but as possible roots beneath the hatred that would lead him to play a pivotal role in Durham’s history.
By the late 1960s C.P. had become a visible and vocal fixture at civil rights marches and protests. He’d viewed any rights won by members of the black community as having been directly stolen from lower-class whites like himself. So he’d screamed directly into the faces of his perceived enemies. And he’d made his hatred known.
This is the man C.P. was when he first met Ann Atwater.
Ann was an outspoken black activist and community organizer at that time, and she remains a vital force in the Durham community to this day. C.P. had first encountered Ann at rallies and government meetings, where the two opponents often sparred.
“I hated her with a purple passion,” he would later say.
While their violent clashes were newsworthy – the white Klansman and the black Civil Rights Activist – many people already know their eventual bond would become the stuff of local legend. But I don’t want to give away too much of the story.
There’s history. There’s legend. And there’s theater.
As an actor, I want to find the heart of my character; and then to go openly and honestly on the journey the playwright has mapped out in the script. For the character of C.P. Ellis in this particular play, I think his heart is buried in his struggles; and his journey begins in the depths of his hate. It’s a dark and dangerous place to go, for me and for the audience. But it’s where we must start if we are to follow C.P. on his path to redemption.
Derrick Ivey is an actor, directer, designer, and gentleman farmer who lives in Chatham County.