reviewed by Ken Klingenmeier

Mat Smart’s historical play, The Agitators, opened this weekend at Phoenix Theatre. It depicts the long friendship between two important visionaries – Susan B. Anthony, who led the early fight for women’s rights in 19th century America, and Frederick Douglass, whose tireless campaign for racial equality in the U.S. gained him solid status in American history books. Encompassing a 45 year span, the action takes place at a variety of locales and uncovers the passions and plans of the two cultural icons along with their assorted differences and alliances. Douglass’ quest to ratify the Fifteenth Amendment, which gave black men the right to vote – but did not extend it to women, drives a wedge between the two, but their common calls to demand equal freedoms never allow them to stay at odds for long.

Playwright Smart has said that his aim in imagining the discussions engaged in by these two agents-for-change is to resist putting them on a pedestal, as they themselves were fighters for opportunity on a level basis. His research into their lives and personalities has afforded him the confidence to create a piece that relates not only their ideas and conflicts, but also their true personalities, i.e. – Douglass’ charisma and Ms. Anthony’s tenacity.

Jerome Beck as Frederick Douglass and Lauren Briggeman as Susan B. Anthony in Phoenix Theatre’s production of “The Agitators”.

Director Mikael Burke has peopled Smart’s endeavor with two incredibly skilled actors: Lauren Briggeman as Susan B. Anthony and Jerome Beck as Frederick Douglass. Their portrayals extend out from the stage, into our minds (and hearts), with flawless clarity. Both leaders are offered with strong convictions, yet it is details of their frailties that complete the richness of the portrayals.

The actors play through the friendship’s many scenes with a sharp understanding of their characters’ needs and feelings. Ms. Briggeman is a straight forward Ms. Anthony – tirelessly indignant about the promises of freedoms that America holds, which women cannot draw from. The suffrage movement is primary to her, and any womanly feelings for love or family are pushed back – resulting in a soft sadness. Mr. Beck’s Douglass is likewise as passionate for the promised freedoms, and is magnanimous in his support for the women’s cause. He is shown to us here with a distinct lack of pride. His gains and losses throughout his life play on his soul and we are privy to these joys and scars in Beck’s potent portrayal.

Lauren Briggeman as Susan B. Anthony meets with Jerome Beck as Frederick Dougalss in Phoenix Theatre’s production of “The Agitators”.

In the end, it is the connection between these two important Americans that is most abundantly played. There is support, there is understanding, there is love for each other’s cause and personage. The actors’ dynamic turns precisely show these facets of the Douglass/Anthony friendship, which many of us never knew existed. It is this conveyance that drives the themes of the play into our hearts and minds for a lasting impression.

On the technical side, director Burke has the good fortune of working with a group of savvy designers. Inseung Park’s set design is at once eclectic and simple. Its features allow for smooth solutions to the play’s many scene/locale changes, especially as embellished by light designer Zac Hunter’s ideas. Guy Clark issues fine costume designs for the period, and Michael Lamirand’s sound design adds much texture to the production.

Lauren Briggeman on Inseung Park’s distinctive set for Phoenix Theatre’s production of “The Agitators”.

Bottomline: The Agitators is a compelling two hour journey, graced by fine performances, as well as formidable direction and technical aspects. It delivers on the play’s ideal – seeking to teach and inform us of how these two greats of another era resolutely strove to make our country fairer and freer. Needless to say, the fight continues.

The Agitators continues at Phoenix Theatre through March 22nd. Find reservation and ticket information at www.PhoenixTheatre.org or by calling (317) 635-7529.

  • photos by Michael Drury