Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Lisa Tejero directs Mat Smart's two hour story, which debuted in 2017, of the little-known friendship between Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony. The Agitators follows them through the exceedingly turbulent years between 1849 and 1895. It's a tidy, warm and meticulous production with live music by Syrhea Conaway just off-stage, and some possibly superfluous stage dressing between scenes, in the movement of various soapboxes and crates. That additional movement helps transport us from upstate New York to Boston to New York City and Washington, D.C., before, during, and after the Civil War.
One of those oblong boxes will also transport us psychologically. It becomes a great metaphor for idealists everywhere when Erin Kelley (heartwarming and unstoppable as the suffragette) can no longer carry the weight of her own tracts and books and philosophies stuffed inside this particular crate. She's been warring with her friend, the abolitionist Frederick Douglass (the majestic Jerome Samuel Davis), over the 15th Amendment, which did not include women in the right to vote. Ratified after much debate in 1870, it granted the franchise to ex-slaves and their descendants, a success for Douglass, but one that left Anthony and her followers feeling shut out. And yet, when the weight of her own idealism becomes too much for her, Douglass finally takes up her burden himself, with much effort. It's a great metaphor for a great friendship.
The writing is just as sharp, with an ending that seems effortlessly transcendent. More than the agitation they caused in the affliction of the comfortable, it is a story of the affliction they both endured: exhorting and upbraiding, to focus the nation's attention on longstanding inequities, in spite of the loss of loved ones, and pepper gas, and vicious arson, and the occasional gunfire.
Of course we learn a lot about the two very disparate figures, toohow Douglass's own slave mother, sold and moved away, walked 12 miles a night to tuck him in as a child and then stole back to her own plantation as soon as he was asleep. Mr. Davis's performance is one of quiet conviction and deep philosophical wondering, even as Douglass becomes old and perhaps a grand scarecrow near the end. We creep more subtly into the visionary mind of Ms. Anthony, challenged by Douglass about her loveless life and the demands of her own sense of commitment. It is a rare gift to be so in love with a pure ideal. Both actors swing together in furious orbits, like dual stars: impossibly single and together, and glowing.
The Agitators runs through October 13, 2019, at Upstream Theater, Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 North Grand (at Olive Street), St. Louis MO. For tickets and information visit www.upstreamtheater.org.
* Denotes Member, Actors Equity Association
** Denotes Membership Candidate, Actors Equity Association