BWW Review: Case Study of Allyship in THE AGITATORS at Park Square Theatre

BWW Review: Case Study of Allyship in THE AGITATORS at Park Square TheatreFrederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony were friends for 45 years through tumultuous times. The strategic interests of their respective causes did not always align, which caused rifts between them. In AGITATORS, Playwright Mat Smart has mined this rich terrain to create an episodic examination of their relationship, fully aware of the relevance it has to the present.

Being an ally across gender or race or class lines is not easy now. Douglass and Anthony tried to do it across all three of those divisions between 1849 and 1895, through the height of the abolitionist movement, the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, the 15th Amendment that granted the vote to black men (but not to women), and Reconstruction. It's instructive to see how they managed and where they failed.

Roughly the same age (Douglass never knew his birthdate), both were outliers in their time. She was the daughter of a somewhat renegade Quaker abolitionist and never married though she helped raise Elizabeth Cady Stanton's children; of mixed race, probably the child of rape, he escaped from slavery, emerged as one of the most eloquent advocates for human rights in our nation's history, and was twice married. They met in Rochester, NY, while in their late twenties, where both had homes.

Smart's version of this first meeting is specifically imagined and plausibly awkward. Douglass (Mikell Sapp) is more famous than Anthony (Emily Gunyou Halaas) at this point. Halaas plays Anthony as a bit geeky and somewhat awestruck. She's very much an abolitionist and wants Douglass' approval but is also unaware that her privilege means she can't really understand what it is to be enslaved. He schools her a bit.

Over the course of the play, we see Anthony acquire a little more polish, though Halass works against portraying her ever as genuinely graceful-a good choice that keeps this portrayal clear of any boring feminist hagiography. Sapp renders Douglass with a kind of courtly gravitas, much of the time, though we do also see his vulnerability after the death of his first wife. The night I saw the show both actors were struggling a bit with lines, though this did not diminish the eloquence of their characters, an eloquence that is clearest when playwright Smart quotes from their writings.

It's not clear to me whether the prologue and epilogue to the two act piece are in Smart's text, or have been added by director Signe V. Harriday. Both are wordless but visually and aurally powerful reminders that the issues Anthony and Douglass fought for throughout their lives remain hot spots for both violence and activism in our time.

The actors are well served by Aaron Chvatal's period costumes and Robert A Dunn's wigs. They navigate Sarah Brandner's appropriately treacherous suggestive set, comprised of two main areas, each incorporating multiple platforms fronted by wide high steps that also serve as acting areas. A wardrobe on each side allows for on stage costume changes. Nine oversized picture frames serve both as doorways and as screens for Bill Cottman's projections. These help orient us in time and geography.

Park Square's production is a regional premiere. THE AGITATORS was first mounted in Rochester at the Geva Theatre Center This script will see many additional stagings, I wager. I encourage everyone who wants to deepen their thinking about the roots of present conflicts around activism, racial justice, and women's rights or about how we might be more effective activists and allies, to go.

THE AGITATORS is up in Saint Paul through October 28.

Photo credit: Petronella J. Ytsma

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From This Author Karen Bovard

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