Claire D. Kolheim will have no trouble transforming herself into civil rights activist Ann Atwater in Mark St. Germain’s upcoming play, “Best of Enemies,” at Playhouse on the Square, Aug. 22 – Sept. 14.
“I put a lot of work into the character and role,” said Kolheim, who researched the activist, watched several videos of her, and read Osha Gray Davidson’s best-selling book, “The Best of Enemies,” “to get a feel for who she is, her mannerism, and how she talks.”
Directed by John Maness and based on Davidson’s book, the play is about an African American civil rights activist who is forced to work alongside the exalted Grand Cyclops C.P. Ellis (Greg Bolton, making his debut at Playhouse on the Square) of the Klu Klux Klan.
Other cast members include Erin Shelton (“God of Carnage”), who plays Mary Ellis; and Jerry Rogers (“The Color Purple”), who plays Bill Riddick.
Both Atwater and Ellis – diametrically opposite on matters of race and schools for black and white children – served as co-chairs on a committee at the behest of a mediator sent by the Department of Education in 1971 to debate the court-ordered desegregation of public schools in Durham, N.C.
The stark differences between Atwater and Ellis are quite apparent – as it was during that turbulent era – and brings out their worst before they ultimately discover who the real enemy is. They make amends and build a lasting friendship.
Though such idiosyncrasies as the color of one’s skin no doubt kept Atwater and Ellis apart, it becomes the building blocks that solidify their relationship. They’d soon discover the common humanity within themselves.
Can you imagine a black woman and a Klansman forming a lasting friendship after undergoing a contentious battle in 1971 over public schools? If you’re having problems imagining it, you’re already ahead in this real-life story, the crux of this colorful play.
“This wasn’t just a racial issue, but a socio-economic issue that had to be address,” said Kolheim, a resident company member of Playhouse on the Square who was tapped to play Atwater. This is her third year as a member.
Kolheim has been acting since 2008 and has won the Ostrander Award three consecutive years for the type of roles that she can study and jump right into character lickety-split. Acting and singing, she pointed out, is her love.
She played Sarah in “Ragtime” and won her first Ostrander Award in 2011 for Best Supporting Actress in a Musical. The following year, in 2012, she won another Ostrander Award for Best Supporting Actress in a Drama for her role as Elizabeth in “In the Next Room”…or the vibrator play. She won another Ostrander Award in 2013 for Best Lead Actress in a Musical for her portrayal of Celie in The Color Purple.
“I thought I wanted to be a doctor and contemplated a career in medicine,” said Kolheim, born and raised in Miami, Fla., and has been a resident of Memphis since 2009. “As an actress, I feel I’m helping many people and touching just as many lives.”
Kolheim met her idol, the late actor James Whitmore, in 2009, while performing in the play “Our Town” at the Peterborough Theatre in New Hampshire. She was smitten by his advice. “I told him I wanted to be in action movies. He said, ‘You should act just for the sake of acting.’”
Wasting no time following the legendary actor’s advice, the highly sought after actress would develop her acting chops playing a number of coveted roles throughout the United States, including the Midwest, New England and recently the South.
“I’m not opposed to anything. I’m just scratching the surface in my career,” said Kolheim, whose career spans only six years. Her dream role, she said, would be to play Celie in a movie musical version of The Color Purple.
While acting is Kolheim’s lifeline, she said she’d love to create a foundation for actors in Memphis that would include locating funding for actors, training them, and giving them the necessary tools to catapult their careers.
For more information about “Best of Enemies” or to make reservations, call (901) 726-4656 or purchase tickets online at playhouseonthesquare.org.
About Claire D. Kolheim…
Born to Haitian parents in Miami, Fla., Kolheim started acting at a young age and became involved in music, dramatic arts, and other performing arts while attending grade school, high school and college. She earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Economics at Florida A&M University in 2001 and a Master of Arts in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Phoenix.
In 2007, Kolheim enrolled at Boston Conservatory for Music and studied musical theatre. She is a member of both Tau Beta Sigma National Honorary Band Sorority and Sigma Alpha Iota International Music Fraternity for Women.
Kolheim is married to Kendall, whom she met at Florida A&M University. He works in sales and finance. She works for The Consortium MMT (Memphis Music Town), a nonprofit started by legendary songwriter David Porter. The couple has two pooches, Kingston “the King” Kolheim and Gabby “No one's Slipper is Safe” Kolheim.
You can follow Kolheim’s career at www.cdkolheim.com