The docudrama “The Agitators” at Rubber City Theatre, theater in residence at the University of Akron, is such a beautifully intimate and educational exploration of the extraordinary, long-standing friendship between 19th century cultural icons Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass, it’s a must-see.
Here’s what you need to know about this compelling play by Mat Smart, playing in its second and final weekend at Guzzetta Hall’s Sandefur Theatre.
It brings history to life
Docudrama is too dry a word to describe this wonderful 2017 play, which ushers audiences into the at-times strained 45-year friendship between abolitionist/orator Douglass and Anthony, a fellow abolitionist who also devoted her life to the women’s suffrage movement.
Playwright Smart brilliantly fleshes out the vital and dangerous work that Quaker Anthony and escaped slave Douglass carried out as agitators in this nation, from their meeting in 1849 through the American Civil War and beyond. Just as importantly, Smart also brings out details about their personal lives and friendship beyond the public eye that make these historical activists real people.
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When these two young abolitionists meet at a picnic at Anthony’s family home in Rochester, New York, we learn that Anthony, star-struck by meeting famed orator Douglass, has given up teaching to make the fight against slavery her mission. Anthony is in her late 20s and Douglass in his early 30s.
Also in this first scene, we see a horrifying flashback to Douglass’ days of slavery.
Projections designers Dane Leasure and Brian Chandler make this historic story more real today by juxtaposing historic photos in the fight for the Black vote and the women’s vote with contemporary photos of protests, including the Black Lives Matter movement.
These historical figures had a great friendship
Before seeing “The Agitators,” I wasn’t aware that Anthony and Douglass were close friends. It makes perfect sense, considering they both lived in Rochester, had brilliant minds and shared the same abolitionist cause.
Equity actors Jason Eno and Jess Hughes give transcendent performances that are a gift to watch as they flesh out the beautiful friendship between these great minds. Throughout the play, these famous activists rib, criticize and challenge each other but also comfort each other in times of great loss.
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This drama is clearly a labor of love for director Brian Chandler and the actors, who create dynamics between Anthony and Douglass of humor, respect and great passion for their work. A rupture in this pair’s friendship is also dramatic in “The Agitators,” bringing to light key historical moments in their causes.
We really get to know Douglass
As Douglass, Eno offers humor, poeticism and fiery passion in his character’s fight against slavery and for equality for African Americans and women. We hear about Douglass’ fading memories of his beloved mother, who walked more than 20 miles round trip from another plantation where she worked to sing young Frederick to sleep at night.
We also learn that Douglass did not sleep in a bed until he was 20 and he did not know his birthday.
Actor Eno has even learned some violin from instructor Ryan Detwiler for his role as Douglass, who’s ever trying to recapture the elusive melody that his mother used to sing to him.
Anthony is kick-butt too
Actress Hughes makes it emphatically clear that Anthony never married because she didn’t want to give up all her rights to a husband. A married woman at the time had no right to property, to manage her own finances or gain custody of her children in case of divorce.
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In this drama, Anthony says she’ll only fall in love with an equal and she’s married to her work. Hughes’ Anthony also illuminates the danger of a woman even daring to speak in public.
For mature audiences
“The Agitators,” recommended for adult and teens 14 and older, contains descriptions of slavery, violence, racism and misogyny. It also has gunfire effects.
For those with airborne peanut allergies, the play also has a character eating real peanuts on stage.
Arts and restaurant writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or email@example.com.
Drama: “The Agitators”
Where: Rubber City Theatre, Sandefur Theatre, Guzzetta Hall, 228 E. Buchtel Ave., the University of Akron
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday
Onstage: Jason Eno, Jess Hughes, Brandon Briggs
Offstage: Mat Smart, director; Brian Chandler, director; Sydney DeMatteis-Geib, costume design; Patrick Lee Johnson, stage manager; Brandon Davies, lighting design; Hazen Tobar, sound design; Julia Fisher, intimacy director; Tetta Askeland, scenic design; Ryan Detwile234-252-0272r, violin instructor; Dane Leasure and Brian Chandler, projections design
Information: rubbercitytheatre.com or 234-252-0272
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