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Review: Mat Smart's THE AGITATORS at FreeFall Theatre Company

Review: Mat Smart's THE AGITATORS at FreeFall Theatre Company

Spanning the length of 45 years in 105 minutes makes THE AGITATORS the slow burn we didn’t know we needed.

"We have to do with the past, only if we can make it useful to the present and the future." -Fredrick Douglass (The Agitators)

"Do you believe this could ever be a Country for All?"- Susan B. Anthony (The Agitators)

The Agitators is a play that was created in 2017 by playwright Mat Smart, which was then later turned into a podcast. Commissioned by the New York State Council on the Arts, the play shows the friendly/and not-so-friendly relationship between Susan B. Anthony and Fredrick Douglass over the course of 45 years leading up to Douglass's death. The play itself opens with Douglass playing the violin and Susan B. Anthony is at a picnic. After premiering shortly following the lifting of restrictions following the COVID-19 Pandemic, and being produced by the Alabama Shakespeare Festival in 2020. The play won the Edgerton Award in 2017 for New Play.

As I said previously above, The Agitators was later produced and adapted into a podcast, which was produced by the National Park Service, Public Radio Exchange, and the Women's Suffrage Centennial Commission.

Bringing a show such as The Agitators, proved no easy task to freeFall Theatre, and a lot of extensive work went into making the story just right. Artistic Director and the show's video designer Eric Davis and Director Kristin Clippard and the team have done a fine job of putting together a thrilling and yet slow burner of an evening at the theatre. I think that is what I enjoy most about this piece. There is no gimmicks, no flashy directorial choices that make you scratch your head. You get the sense of who these two influential historical figures are not just on the surface, but at the root center of their human condition. Sure we all learned about these two figures in our history books, but Mat Smart's dialogue allows history to leap from the page and we become a part of their history if even for a brief moment in time.

A stunning two-person cast makes up the heart of our story, and we are pulled in from the very start.

As Fredrick Douglass, L. James, making his freeFall debut is a marvel at every turn. His deep timber of a voice allows you to be swept away and into the words in which he speaks. He commands the room, and his exact resemblance to Douglass is uncanny. This is no caricature, but a real, true-to-life rendering of the man only known in our history books. Hats off to the Costume Designer David Covach for his beautiful representation of the time period, and to Wig Designer Loryn Pretorius for the exceptional work. It truly takes a village, and with fine attention to detail the production team of The Agitators hits every mark flawlessly. L. James is staunch and stoic in all the right moments, but at its surface you feel the depth of his heart, the need for a better world in which to raise his children, and the humor and joy one can only find amidst times of turmoil and strife. An outstanding debut performance from L. James, and one that truly should be experienced.

As our other Agitator, Susan B. Anthony, Jennifer Christa Palmer is no stranger to the freeFall arena. Last seen on-stage at freeFall as Miss Prism, Zombie Hunter in the world premiere of The Importance of Being Earnest with Zombies, and as Tybalt, Lady Capulet, Peter, and Gregory in Romeo & Juliet, audiences welcome Jennifer back with open arms. For our purposes, Susan B. Anthony is calculated, concise, and driven to achieve the one thing she has fought for all her life to, Equal rights for all, specifically in areas of voting. Again hats off to the Costume and Wig team for the uncanny resemblance. You get more of a side-by-side image when images of both real-life Anthony and Douglass appear as images on the wall behind our performers during curtain call. Jennifer's performance is spot-on here. I think my favorite thing about this portrayal is her back-and-forth with L. James' Douglass. The humor shared between the two, and even in times of bickering and squabbles, gives you the sense that these two have truly been friends all of their lives.

Kristin Clippard is our guest Director for The Agitators, and she produces a show that is sharp, fluid and exact down to the final moments. An expertly paced 105 minutes keeps the audience drawn in from the start. In today's political climate where we find the world so divided in all areas, it can be quite a task to mount a production such as this. Kristin and team provide us an evening that is informative, full of wit and humor, and a keen eye to story-telling that should be experienced. Period pieces aren't for everyone, but when I tell you everyone should see this important story, there is no soapbox in which I stand, for the performances, the design, the Direction is so spot-on, you would be remiss and doing a serious disservice to yourself to miss this incredible show. I think Kristin said it best in her Director's Notes:

"Our nation would not be what it is without the work of these individuals. they saw problems, so they called meetings. They spoke; they shouted; they wrote letters, articles, and books. They agitated the people to make them question their beliefs and take action. They were living and working in a broken society where individual's rights were not upheld (let alone their personhood).

In our current day, we feel the division and brokenness, too. We don't see enough compassion for other humans. Fredrick and Susan were deeply compassionate and modeled upstanding behavior to everyone they met....

However, we can take inspiration from their story. Despite being battered and bruised, flawed and imperfect in their fight- they persisted. No matter where we sit on the political spectrum , we can all agree that working towards a better future is part of the American Legacy. May Fredrick and Susan inspire us to ask: What can I do to make change today?"

Hansen Scenic's Set Design, is a house divided, a crumbled world in which these characters reside and try to rebuild, creating a perfect backdrop for the world of our story. Lighting Design by Dalton Hamilton fully evokes the different emotions in which the characters and the nation face during this trying time in our history. Costume and Wig Design are so spot-on the resemblance is uncanny. Sound Design by Bailey Gafeney help produce moments in the show to propel the narrative forward and are wonderfully executed. The use of video imagery inside the window of the house, not only provide us a timeline of the story but provide imagery integral to the story, showing changing in seasons, and even a moment of fire, all created by the talented Eric Davis. Alexis Roberts provides the production with props that not only fit perfectly for the time period, but have a purpose in the lives of these characters. Stage Management from Brian Shea, keeps the pacing of the show, and momentum tight from start to finish. Technically sound, and beautifully rendered in all areas, The Agitators is a beautifully captured piece of history, leaping from page to stage.

The Agitators, tells an important story, about an important time in the history of our nation. It also asks us as audience members to reflect on the actions we take in our day- to-day. For me that is an important lesson that we all should be reflecting on, not just after this show, but every day no matter the cost. Treat yourself to an important story of the history of our nation, and an even more important self-reflection, for The Agitators is just the ticket. Tickets can be purchased by visiting Mat Smart's The Agitators is only on stage through February 26, 2023, and now more than ever is a very important moment that we all should share.

"How can we learn to stay in a room with people we hate?"

"Agitation is the spark to fire for all change..."

Photo Credit: Thee Photo Ninja

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