“What can I do?,” suffragist Susan B. Anthony plaintively inquires of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, when they both find themselves—as often in history—meeting resistance to change. “There’s only one thing to do,” replies Douglas. “Agitate.”
In the most powerful moments of Mat Smart’s earnest and entertaining play, The Agitators, that is exactly what they do. Toward the end of Act I, Anthony and Douglass find themselves in a rare moment of bitter division. The problem isn’t their shared goal of suffrage for all American citizens—it’s the strategy of how to achieve it.
When Anthony realizes that Douglass is supporting a 15th Amendment that removes women from voting rights, the two engage in an impassioned discussion that shakes the play as if an electric current suddenly went on. This is Smart’s writing at its… well, smartest… and the play really crackles. Both of the excellent actors—Charlotte Northeast as Anthony, and Steven Wright as Douglas—are also at their considerable best here.
It’s quite a story that The Agitators tells, made all the more interesting because it’s true. These two giants in American history—a white woman from a large family in Upstate New York and a black man from Maryland who escaped enslavement—were, in fact, longtime friends and collaborators.
Their mutual respect is a matter of record, and for the most part it’s well captured here. Disagreement over how to handle the suffrage issue would remain between them. Douglass, who died in 1895, saw Black American males get the vote in 1870; Anthony died in 1906, 14 years before women finally earned that right.
But they agreed fundamentally on many things, and both found themselves famous in the America of their time. At one point in The Agitators, they compare diaries and speaking engagements—both are booked solid weeks and months ahead. Smart’s Anthony and Douglass are aware of their celebrity. “Are you quoting me to me?,” each asks the other, with a wry implied wink.
Occasionally, that winky tone overtakes The Agitators. In what I take to be an effort to make these two 19th Century superheroes seem more human and accessible, Smart occasionally adopts a too-cozy tone. (Frankly, I winced when Anthony introduces herself with a peach cobbler, in a way I find similarly awkward in The Belle of Amherst, when Emily Dickinson—one of our more ferocious poets—brags about her Indian bread recipe.) That, and some necessary but clumsy exposition, give a few scenes the tone of a museum exhibit.
But far more of The Agitators is both entertaining and important, and it’s very well directed by Cheyenne Barboza, and elegantly designed by Marie Laster (scenery), Elliot Konstant (lights), and Janus Stefanowicz (costumes).
More than that, this is a show that clearly serves the community, and opening night at Theatre Horizon in Norristown had an extraordinary feeling of kinship. This small but highly accomplished company, now in its 15th year, has consistently delivered fine work that feels very much in the moment. Opening The Agitators the day after Super Tuesday felt so right—and so much what theater should be about. Yes, the show itself has its ups and downs. But in terms of public service, I’m giving the production an A-plus-plus.
The Agitators plays through March 22. For more information, visit the Theatre Horizon website.