BWW Interview: Mat Smart of THE AGITATORS at Mosaic Theater Company
Playwright Mat Smart has written numerous plays, including the recently premiered Kill Local, and is currently under commission by The Second City and the La Jolla Playhouse to write The Elephants, a comedy about white privilege. His play, The Agitators, is premiered at Geva Theatre Center in Rochester, and is part of the Mosaic Theater Company current season, themed "How Hope Happens." The Agitators is also set to be produced this season at Park Square Theatre, Gloucester Stage Company, and Theatre Conspiracy.
What was your original inspiration for The Agitators?
I was doing show at the Geva Theatre Center in Rochester, and I did a tour of the Susan B Anthony House. Their friendship was mentioned, along with their fight over the 15th Amendment, but it was just a passing comment, pretty much a footnote. I started investigating, and the first thing you can find is his obituary in The New York Times, which mentions his sitting next to her at a Women's Council event on the day he died. I thought it was compelling that they had this fight, but were still together. So I started researching how shortly after the 15th was passed he was advocating with her again. Then I found out about the [National American Woman Suffrage Association's] Convention in Atlanta preventing black women from attending, but three weeks later he was with her in meeting in DC that had black and white women present. It made me think about how you have the ideal, but what can you actually get? What do we sacrifice and compromise, and when do you dig in your heels?
The more I thought about it, the more I thought it needed to be a play, and this is a way playwrights can be of great use. We don't know what they said to each other behind closed doors, but we have their letters and writings. It's a time when history has holes, and playwrights can be useful in dramatizing their story.
What were some of your favorite things that you learned in your research? You mentioned in your talk-back (after a preview performance) that you wanted to include a reference to Douglass receiving a cane that belonged to Lincoln, but what other pieces of information did you find interesting, whether they made it into the final draft or not?
One thing I wasn't able to get in the play is that, after he died, Susan B Anthony had a 3-day bonfire in her yard late in her life to burn her letters and records. She wanted to be the one controlling her narrative - she published her own works, like History of Woman Suffrage. It's the same as us not wanting people to have our email password; we wouldn't want people to know how we corresponded with our friends privately. It's interesting, because Douglass' house was burned down, and that's how he lost a lot of his documents. It's really an illustration of privilege. I wish I could have gotten it in, but it happened too far after their friendship.
She was crazy about fruit and apples and peaches - she was always talking about them in her letters.
The thing I was so amazed about time and time again: John Stauffer writes about Douglass' amazing capacity for forgiveness, and I think that comes through in his narrative over and over. I love his compassion, and his ability to be the reeds instead of the oak tree.
I also got to read a bunch of unpublished letters she wrote late in life - they were really personal and affectionate. She describes the first time she used the telephone and her wonder at it, and one letter to friend was about the death of her mother. She was an emotional and heartfelt person, but she's often portrayed as much sterner.
I think one of the compelling things about this play is that they're not portrayed as the stern, imposing images we're used to seeing of them.
One of the big inspirations for the play was down the street from the Susan B Anthony House: there's a sculpture called "Let's Have Tea" by Pepsy Kettavong. It showed Susan B Anthony and Frederick Douglass having tea together. They're not on pedestals - you can sit in their laps if you want to. The sculptor wanted them to be accessible, and that's what I tried to write.
In one scene, Frederick interrupts Susan to say he doesn't need Susan B. Anthony, he needs his friend Susan. I thought it was a striking line about the difference between our public and private selves, especially for people who are public figures - it doesn't feel like either version is disingenuous, but there's clearly a difference. Why was it so important to show that distinction in this show?
I think the 15th really changed the course of their lives in a huge way. Douglass, by then, had escaped slavery, he had helped slavery get abolished, he helped black men get the right to vote - even though he was active after that, he'd accomplished so much that he existed in the world differently than her. She never got the right to vote, she had to keep battling. One of the lines in the play that she repeats, "I don't know how to sit," is meant to show that her fight never stopped.
His saying that in that moment was an honest and truthful thing, but she couldn't afford to not be Susan B Anthony. She couldn't stop because she never got what she wanted. That's why she was in her 70s and 80s and still had a robust speaking tour. I think it shows the difference between where they were. But the point of the scene was really a man who lost his wife and needed his friend to help him.
Balancing both of their perspectives and their validity - it was a really wonderful, difficult task.
I was really impressed with your focus on the emotional labor most women carry - Anthony's pointing it out to Douglass was fascinating, because that's still an area women struggle with, even with their closest male allies.
It's a moment where I took what I knew of both of them and what I knew of them in that moment in time, and tried to figure out what conflict they would have had with each other because of that. Douglass being one of the most important writers of the 19th century and his wife couldn't read is a challenging thing to talk about, so I wanted to address it. It's a moment where I believe it's a conversation that could have happened and would have happened, but I didn't have a direct letter.
The challenge in writing is that because they were in the same place so often, and so many letters were destroyed.
It was dangerous for them to be together in public. He was walking down the street once with a white woman in New York City, and he was beaten for it. Their friendship itself was an agitation.
On a similar vein, you do a fantastic job of showing how while Anthony is a supporter, she doesn't fully get Douglass' experience.
The play ultimately became about Frederick trying to dismantle Susan's racial bias, and Susan dismantling his gender bias - and in turn, trying to dismantle my own biases. Trying to see from another person's eyes is an important theme. We'll never get there, but trying is vital to getting to a world that's equitable. It's vital to empathy.
It's an ongoing struggle for the characters and for me. Working on this play, I've listened to collaborators who are women and people of color, and I've tried to put their perspectives in.
It's impossible to see this play and not relate it back to our world today - did you have these parallels in mind while you were writing? Did it make you hopeful or worried to see such similarities?
It's both incredibly inspiring and completely disturbing that what they were fighting for still resonates today. Frederick's quote at the beginning embodies that: "We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and the future." I don't think it's useful to excavate the past unless we make it relevant to what we're going through now.
I honestly think that a lot of the stories being told now - political commentary and parody - it's hard to have perspective on it, to listen to it. Going into history to hear what they say about these very same issues let us hear it anew and in a clearer way than we hear our contemporaries. How can they still help us? I think they can.
One of the quotes that really resonates is Douglass' final prayer: "Lord, will you, one day, give us the strength to fight for each other as much as we fight for ourselves? And until that day, will you please have mercy on our souls?" It's such a powerful statement - is it one of his actual quotes?
It's not a Douglass quote. I wrote that based on a study of his character, and of his capacity for forgiveness.
It's the crux of the whole fight, the whole struggle - any struggle. Will we ever be able to fight for each other as much as we fight for ourselves? It's been an interesting process drawing from what they wrote. I ultimately decided to write my version of these characters, but I couldn't have written it without reading so much of what he wrote.
Do you have any final thoughts? Things you'd like people to know or keep in mind before they see the show?
It's special to do the show in Washington, DC; other than Rochester, this was their second, adopted home. It's great to be where some of the action of the play happens.
It's really special that it's being produced around the Midterm Elections since it was so vital to them to have the right to vote and to have a voice. I hope people will see the play and have a healthy dialogue around it. It's exciting to have it in DC at this particular moment.
Mosaic Theater Company's production of The Agitators opens at Atlas Performing Arts Center on October 29th, and runs through November 25th.