Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

The Agitators
Park Square Theatre
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of The Visit, Frankenstein - Playing with Fire and Last Stop on Market Street


Emily Gunyou Halaas and Mikell Sapp
Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma
Mat Smart's two-character play The Agitators had a world premiere production a year ago at Geva Theatre Center in Rochester, New York. It is not by chance that the play came to life there. Much of it takes place in and around Rochester, and its two characters, Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass, both lived there for many years and are buried in Rochester's Mount Hope Cemetery. The Agitators is about the unlikely friendship between these two giants of American civil rights, a friendship that lasted forty-five years, from the 1840s to Douglass' death in 1895. The play has now come to Park Square Theatre's proscenium stage in a production directed by Signe V. Harriday.

Smart has invented dialogue that dramatizes encounters between these two over the decades, but each scene is accompanied by a specific date and location, letting us know where and when the paths of Douglass and Anthony crossed and what the content of their conversations would likely have been. That content covers a broad sweep of the tandem struggles for women's suffrage and the abolition of slavery, with touchstones such as the Seneca Falls Convention (Frederick Douglass was the only African American in attendance), the Underground Railroad, John Brown's raid at Harpers Ferry, and the Civil War. After the war, the play draws lines to reconstruction and the fight for the 15th Amendment giving the right to vote to men of all color, regardless of former servitude—but, not to women.

The play starts with a montage of sounds and images that conflate current society with Douglass' time. Douglass emerges and plays his violin, known to be one of his great pastimes. Soon his lovely music is drowned out by sounds of protests and cries of "don't shoot, hand's up," with projected images to match. We are asked to see the connection between courageous men and women like Douglass and Anthony with America as we know it today. Early on, a line written by Douglass makes this point: "We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and the future."

That line is read by Susan B. Anthony from a paper she takes from Frederick in the opening scene. He had recently returned from two years in Ireland and Great Britain where, as a runaway slave, he sought safety from recapture that was likely to follow the publication of his first book, "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave." His return was made possible when supporters raised money to purchase his freedom from his former owner, making him legally a free man. Reunited with his wife Anne and their children, they resettle in Rochester, with the support of a group of committed abolitionists, Susan's parents among them. That is how Frederick and Susan first meet.

Frederick is impressed by this woman, a teacher who lost her position by challenging the school board to pay her the same wages they would pay a man. Their friendship begins gingerly, but they soon realize they have much in common. He is committed to equal rights for all, for Native Americans and immigrants as well as for African Americans, and for women as well as men. Susan, while outspoken on women's rights, is unable to sleep for ruminating over how to end the evils of slavery. To this concern, Douglass gives her a direct answer: "Agitate, agitate, agitate." And they do just that.

Still, they are not afraid to dive into fierce arguments when they disagree, as they often do, about the means to achieve their common goals, including whether to accept progress for black men if it excludes women, or for white women if women of color are not at the table. Each sees gains in their campaign as a step toward victory for the other. They also question each other's personal choices, drawing linkage between the personal and political, challenged by the contradictions between what is right and what is possible. In the end, their allegiance to the greater common cause and their mutual respect ensures that their friendship endures.

Harriday keeps the play moving at a comfortable clip, slowing down enough for us to adjust to the onward thrust of history from scene to scene, but swift enough for it to feel like drama, and not a history lesson. Still, the play itself feels a bit wooden. That we always see Susan and Frederick with no one else present limits the sense of real lives being on view. Of course, this is the nature of a two-character play, but it here results in a staginess that undermines the work's full force. One of the best scenes is set at a baseball game, with Susan and Frederick cheering for the black and white ballplayers on the field together. They talk about specific players (one of them is Frederick's son), and a white man who glares at them menacingly, angered to see a black man and white woman sitting together as equals. Even though there are still only two characters on stage, their reactions to the unseen others around them enhances the scene and gives it a vibrancy many other scenes lack.

There is, to be sure, no lack of vibrancy on the part of the two performers. Emily Gunyou Harris is marvelous as Susan B. Anthony: smart, outspoken, fearless, yes, but also very down to earth and practical. She moves with the drive of someone with a long to-do list, never mind what propriety might prefer. She also conveys a deadpan humor that would have been a great coping mechanism for fighting the endless barriers to her cause. Mikell Sapp brings to Frederick Douglass a gravitas and refinement that we identify with the great orator, but also finds the means to let down that guard and, with his friend, be informal and vulnerable. When faced with the passing of his wife Anne, the great love of his life, Sapp draws down the stoic civil rights champion and shows us Frederick Douglass as a man, like any man, helpless against the pains life inflicts upon us.

Between scenes, which are separated by gaps in time, sometimes of many years, the two actors are dispatched to separate sides of the stage where they draw from 19th century wardrobes, in view of the audience, to change their attire and hair. The well-executed costumes designed by Aaron Chvatal provide an illustrated overview of changing women's fashions, with a welcome sense of relief when the hoop skirt is left behind, while Robert A. Dunn has done an excellent job of providing wigs that show changes both in style and the greying of the two agitators over time. Sarah Brandner's utilitarian setting features two platforms where most of the action occurs, and a dozen or so large picture frames hanging from above, some of which pivot to serve as doorways, and on which projections introduce each scene, as well as the provocative video montages (by Bill Cottman) that open and close the play.

The Agitators provides a fascinating window on a period of immense transformation in our nation, seen through the eyes of two of the great proponents of those changes. It also allows us to peer into the inner lives of Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass, to see that though extraordinarily committed and courageous, they were not super-human. We need not believe that men and women of such majesty only walked the earth in past centuries; the potential for individuals to summon the qualities needed to be the agitators who take on the great issues of the day is always present. The play ends with a coda that brings this message forcefully home, urging us to seek out the agitators in our midst today, for there remains a great deal to do.

The Agitators, through October 28, 2018, on the Proscenium Stage at Park Square Theatre, 20 West Seventh Place, Saint Paul MN. Tickets: $25.00 – 60.00; under 30 discounted seats, $21.00; students (18 or younger and college students with ID), $16.00; seniors (62+) $5.00 discount; military, $10.00 discount. For tickets call 651-291-7005 or go to parksquaretheatre.org.

Writer: Mat Smart; Director: Signe V. Harriday; Scenic Design: Sarah Brandner; Costume Design: Aaron Chvatal; Lighting Design: Michael P. Kittel; Sound Design: Christy Johnson; Wig Design: Robert A. Dunn; Properties Design: Abbe Warmboe; Video Design: Bill Cottman; Dramaturg: Peter Rachleff; Assistant Dramaturg: Nyomee Fevrier; Stage Manager: Lyndsey R. Harter; Assistant Stage Manager: Haley Walsh.

Cast: Emily Gunyou Halaas (Susan B. Anthony), Mikell Sapp (Frederick Douglass).


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