Special to The Bangor Daily News by Melissa M. Orth
When a play’s only characters are two of the most distinguished freedom fighters in American history, words matter more than stage actions. The skill with which two superb actors deliver those words makes the Theater at Monmouth’s production of “The Agitators,” a play written by Mat Smart and directed by Debra Ann Byrd, a powerful and moving experience.
The Theater at Monmouth titled its 52nd season “Revolutionary Redux,” featuring performances that offered a second chance to celebrate the noted anniversaries of 2020 that were not publicly honored due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the season’s second play, the eponymous agitators are Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony — who were both revolutionary abolitionists and suffragists of the 19th century.
Sadly, neither lived until 1920 to see women in all 48 states gain the right to vote or get to wave a flag for Maine’s centennial.
Despite the play’s minimal action, it zips right along. For just over 100 minutes, not including intermission, Nathan M. Ramsay, debuting at TAM as Douglass, and TAM alumna Casey Turner as Anthony, discuss and disagree over the finer points of equal rights. What could easily devolve into a sanctimonious lecture or dull history lesson is instead a series of electrifying conversations on racism and sexism expressed in a touching story of friendship between these two political figures.
The play begins with the traumatic sounds of whippings, chains, dogs barking and the pounding of a beating heart. Douglass stands on stage, dolorously playing a violin. He pauses to say, “There is nowhere safe in America for me.” The words, “as a Black man” are unspoken yet loud and clear.
“The Agitators” may be a play about a man who escaped slavery and succeeded in his fight to outlaw it, but the struggle to be recognized as a person who is seen as equal and deserving of respect continues to this day.
Susan B. Anthony saw Frederick Douglass as an ally, an equal and partner — and at times a rival — in the fight for equal rights.
The duo’s dynamic dialogue begins in 1849 with the meeting of Susan and Frederick at Anthony’s farm in upstate New York. Frederick is a married father, a best-selling memoirist and a household name. Susan is a young woman gaining traction in the local area as a skilled speaker for women’s rights, including the right not to engage in the institution of marriage if one (ahem, she herself) so wishes.
Turner brings youth to her character with playful teasing and a stubborn rambunctious air. Ramsay establishes Douglass as a man wholly in love with his freedom, his wife Anna, his children and his role as one who uses words which “can shine justice like no other force.” This clearly inspires Susan, and the two playfully share an afternoon comparing opinions (and jibes) while solidifying their mission and friendship. They find it is not just their cause that connects them, it’s their mutual sense of humor.
Some of the play is laugh out loud funny, especially in a later scene when he tries to teach her the rules of early baseball.
As the next 45 years pass, and the two figures weather (offstage) angry mobs, arson, political betrayal and the ratification of the 15th Amendment, their mutual respect is tested when Douglass secures the right to vote, leaving Anthony and all women, Black and white, barred from the ballot box. Though the term “intersectionality” was not coined by the late 1800s, Douglass and Anthony fought passionately for inclusion, though the characters have blinds spots to their own sexism and white privilege respectively.
In 2016, Mat Smart was commissioned to write “The Agitators” by the Geva Theater Center in Rochester, NY, to be performed in 2017 for the state of New York’s 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage. Written after the formation of the Black Lives Matter movement but before the death of George Floyd, the play quotes Douglass’ and Anthony’s writings — with direction by Byrd — to emphasize the injustices, prejudice and inequalities that, unfortunately, still exist. While this anti-racist message is inescapable due to the inherent topic of the play, “The Agitators” focuses primarily on how the friendship of these two very different persons changed the course of history.
It isn’t always the words, the actors’ lines, that convey their mutual support and affection; it is when the two lie down in silence on stage, head to head, and just breathe, to listen in the quiet connection that creates a powerful performance.
To see The Agitators and the rest of the Revolutionary Redux play at the Theater at Monmouth, visit: http://theateratmonmouth.org/