The first time they met in western New York, in the fall of 1849, playwright Mat Smart imagines, Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony would have had a wary interchange. Both are strong willed social activists, but as a friendship develops, Douglass reminds her that, while her life’s devotions are honorable, his view is based on having lived through the horrors of chattel slavery, which was still thriving. The Agitators provides glimpses into the decades long friendship between these two American icons, delving into their backstories, evolving societal expectations, and their lifelong commitment to the American ideals of justice.
Smart’s compelling script weaves through historical periods and sprinkles touchstone events that reinforce their humanity. The images of these two larger-than life leaders have been indelibly cast in our minds, but we finally get a chance to experience them as real people with longings along their shortcomings and irritations. Most know of Susan B. Anthony’s role in the fight for women’s equality while her image on the dollar coin lies, treasured, in a forgotten drawer. Here we get chance to see her pivotal role in the suffragette movement, fighting tirelessly for women’s equality and her sacrifices along the way.
Marni Penning delivers an exquisite performance as Anthony. With piercing eyes full of expression, yelling her arguments to anyone in range, and body language geared for battle, Penning’s layered performance reveals a tenderness beneath the raging determination. Anthony reflects gently on her Quaker upbringing and intones the words of her abolitionist father in the steady drumbeat for equality. Because that’s where it started. The family was deeply rooted in abolishing slavery, their home was a stopping point on the road to freedom and the quest for equality. An essential next step was voting parity for women, and Anthony would let nothing deter her from her quest– lovers, paramours and potential husbands may have appeared along the way, but without a commitment to complete equality, she sent them packing.
Also well known (by most), is the incredible legacy of Frederick Douglass, commanding orator, leader, writer, former slave. Ro Boddie breathes fire in portraying Douglass in deportment, regal bearing, intensity, and of course, sporting the hair. Douglass maintained serious expressions in his many portraits – his intention was to state in no uncertain terms that slavery was an abomination and no laughing matter. The production also keeps the sound of the lash in the forefront with bodies writhing in pain and agony as a constant reminder of the reality that must never be sugar-coated, minimized, dismissed, explained away or forgotten. Boddie’s stormy gaze as he relates the painful moments in Douglass’s life and those of the enslaved captives speaks volumes.
The historical connection between the two is beautifully rendered in segments of interchange across the years. A major riff occurs when Anthony demands total commitment to women suffrage. The script volleys between the two characters each stating their case that escalates on occasion to toe-to-toe shouting matches. Having put her life, health and well-being on the line to abolish slavery, Anthony is devastated that Douglass “settled” for less than the ideal in his focus on the black vote as a first step, the 15th Amendment, that prohibited “denying a citizen the right to vote based on that citizen’s “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” The poignant arguments feel as real and topical today as all those years ago. Through it all, director KenYatta Rogers assures a caring and careful connection between the two characters as they battle through the minefields of racism and social inequality, urging society to Listen to each other — Words Matter.
closes November 25, 2018
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Adanna Paul and Josh Adams are the ensemble and appear in beautifully rendered costumes by Amy MacDonald. They wordlessly move the set in character and represent workers, struggling masses or notables (Paul strikes an amazing pose as Ida B. Wells) or in silhouette behind the fluttering curtains. Set by Jonathan Dahm Robertson is a multiple-part structure that can be separated and rolled around to set up a comfortable parlor, train depot or a haven for runaway slaves. Lighting designer Alberto Segarra creates the range of moods from caressing shadows to stark brutality, and projectionist James Morrison’s images transport us through all the settings. Also notable is the role of music and sound by designer David Lamont Wilson, from the flinching whip of the lash to contemporary songs linking the poignant past with right now.
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The playbill is a valuable primer of key historical events and the director’s notes include reflections to journey through the emotional, cultural and social terrain. Also, the robust set of discussions being offered reflect the intense commitment of Mosaic Theater Company to hear all the voices at the table, a reminder that “justice” should not imply—“just us.” Rogers uses a term “citizen-heroes” in describing those who will look steely eyed in the face of oppression of others and take a stand. What better time than now to say “Enough” and to “course correct the moral compass of the country?” It’s asking a lot for a play to stir and shake that kind of momentum. The Agitators is that kind of play.
The Agitators by Mat Smart . Director: KenYatta Rogers . Starring Ro Boddie, Marni Penning, Adanna Paul and Josh Adams . Set Designer – Jonathan Dahm Robertson . Lighting Designer – Alberto Segarra . Costume Designer: Amy MacDonald . Sound Designer— David Lamont Wilson . Projections Designer James Morrison . Assistant Projections Designer Alec Sparks . Movement Coordinator Elena Velasco . Properties Designer— Emily Boisseau . Production Stage Manager: Laurel VanLandingham . Produced by Mosaic Theater Company . Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson.