When my family moved to North Carolina from DC, it was instilled in us that college basketball is a religion – not just a sport. In the Tarheel State, basketball can cause lifelong feuds or create lifelong friendships. To quantify the sports passion, just Google the Duke-UNC rivalry or “Chapel Hill Basketball Scandal.” The number of search results alone is proof that, around these parts, college basketball is fertile ground for drama.
Capitalizing on the region’s basketball fervor, Triad Stage’s final offering of its Greensboro season, Common Enemy, a new play by Artistic Director Preston Lane (also the production’s director), sets a Watergate-style story about exposing institutional corruption and deceit against the backdrop of North Carolina college basketball. The institution in question here is Zebulon College, whose Zebras basketball team (with their talented point guard, Ricky Oliver, at the helm) has recently joined the NCAA Division I.
The new alliance is a victory for the school: more recruits, more scholarships for athletes, and more visibility nationwide. However, Patrick Lee, a whistleblowing professor, figures something fishy is brewing below the surface of this seemingly perfect arrangement, especially after learning valuable information from one of Ricky’s former high school teachers about how the student-athlete managed to get a full scholarship to Zebulon, despite being the worst student in his high school. With the help of teaching assistants and a journalist friend, Patrick begins to uncover facts about a conspiracy that may (or may not) have been put in order by higher administrative people, including the Director of Athletics and the Chair of the Board of Trustees. He soon comes to find out that in the world of overnight media sensations and the cult-like following of college basketball teams, facts do not always tell the truth. But is there even a single truth to tell?
Lane’s script, with its articulate and brilliant narrative, does not give any answers, but rather poses questions. The play puts people on the chopping block and questions everyone’s intentions in seeking the truth. We even question the intentions of Patrick, our story’s hero, once they too are called into question. Is he doing this for his pride or for the betterment of the university? It becomes hard to tell in the contradictory environment of academia.
Lane’s actors move gracefully on Fred Kinney’s eye-popping set, which uses things as spare as folding chairs and projections to create an office, a home, or a basketball court. Multimedia is used in this production in a well-thought-out way: cameramen film intimate moments of characters that are then broadcast onto three screens for all the audience to see.
This world premiere production is a collaboration with UNCG Theatre,* providing students the opportunity to work alongside theatre professionals. The show boasts eight graduate MFA in Acting candidates among its cast and a production staff that features graduate design students.
Adam Barrie’s Ricky Oliver, the star of the Zebulon Zebras, was funny and all too real. Elizabeth Flax’s administrator was riveting from the start and delivered crushing moments of unforgiving evil without any sign of sympathy. Her conspirers, played by Cinny Strickland and Michael Tourek (of UNCG), were standouts in their scenes. Kurt Uy as Patrick Lee was deep, honest, and emotionally clear.
Mari Vial-Golden deserves high accolades for portraying the Syrian-born teaching assistant to Uy’s professor with a high degree of integrity and heart. Cassandra Lowe Williams was full of warmth in her scenes as the star player’s former high school English teacher. Carroll “Chip” Johnson’s Mayor was a highlight, willing to play dirty politics in order to get some airtime to advertise his local barbecue joint.
These UNCG acting students also stood out in their respective roles: Julie Roble’s wife to Uy’s professor blurred the line from theatrical performance to gripping realism. Jennifer Mann, Taylor Hale, and Natalie Brouwer played their smaller roles with immense purpose and passion. Every role is crucial in a scandal. Laura Jernigan’s journalist was a perfect mixture of pathos and common sense. Ben Baker as the basketball devotee and “mad as hell” professor was reminiscent of Peter Finch in Network, although Baker’s character commits a more detrimental offense. Elizabethe Wouters gave a simple yet multi-layered performance as the tutor who helped Ricky out on more things than just homework.
With its themes of truth, exposing corruption, and the motivation behind it, Common Enemy is not just an allusion to the title of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People. The politics of the play operate like a strategically maneuvered chess game, performed in the vain of a criminal thriller. But the play’s thrills are perhaps most scary for their immediate relevance: college athletics means big money and big politics.
Common Enemy is sure to prompt debates and questions from its audiences. It is not very often that a piece of theatre comes along, let alone an original play by the director himself, that says so much about the things we read in the headlines every day. And in addressing such a sacred subject, Common Enemy does justice to the fact that in North Carolina there is much more to basketball than sport.
Common Enemy continues through Sunday, June 28. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.
*Editor's Note: Had we realized the involvement of UNCG in this production we would have sent another critic, inasmuch as Cooper is a student there, albeit chiefly in conducting. For this reason we have been somewhat more circumspect in our comments than is our norm. But by all means see the show!