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‘Agitators’ explores friendship between Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass

October 3, 2018

Who knew that Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony were such intimate friends?

The two 19th-century heroes of black and women’s liberation are yoked together in “The Agitators,” a historical drama by Mat Smart that opened over the weekend at Park Square Theatre in downtown St. Paul.

In director Signe Harriday’s sensitive production, Douglass brings a bucket of water for Anthony’s weary feet. He puts his hands in the bucket at the same time she puts her feet in — a surprisingly tender gesture, given the grave danger Douglass would have faced if he were seen even talking with an unmarried white woman. He leavens this potentially loaded moment by talking about the odor coming off her feet.

Smart’s two-hander traces the history of their 45-year friendship, which began in the 1840s — from the slavery era to emancipation (for black men, at least). It shows how the drive for different groups of oppressed people converges and diverges as circumstances change.

Douglass was an ardent champion of women’s rights who nevertheless jumped at the opportunity presented by the 15th Amendment, which extended the franchise to black men; women would have to wait another 50 years. Anthony, for her part, enjoyed the support of avowed racists.

The production is beautifully performed by actors Emily Gunyou Halaas and Mikell Sapp. The pair infuse historical material — the play quotes liberally from the two icons’ writings and speeches — with conviction and pathos. Costumed mostly in period wear by Aaron Chvatal, Halaas and Sapp make a striking pair. In giving clear emotion and drive to their characters, they humanize figures we know from history (or vending machines, in the case of the Anthony $1 coin).

But “Agitators” isn’t only about the past. The scenic design, by Sarah Brandner, is made up primarily of oversized frames that are sometimes suffused with mist. The aim is to show Douglass and Anthony stepping into and out of history; the past and present interface.

That sense of historical permeability also is present in the scene-setting video projections by Bill Cottman that include a sound score of contemporary protesters chanting, “Hands up, don’t shoot,” and the interstitial music from the likes of Nina Simone, Kendrick Lamar and Childish Gambino (“This Is America”).

While the acting and design are fine, there are shortcomings in the actual script. Because the play is so tightly focused on Anthony’s and Douglass’ political lives, it misses opportunities to show other aspects of the characters and deepen our understanding of them.

When Douglass’ home is torched, for example, he’s more interested in using this act of violence to advance his cause than to find out about the well-being of his absent wife and children. That bit rings a touch false. It’s a challenge to do justice to two epic lives with just two actors.

rpreston@startribune.com • 612-673-4390 • Twitter: @rohanpreston

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