WASHINGTON, D.C. – “ The Agitators” is onstage at the Mosaic Theatre through Nov. 25 and the play is a compelling portrait of the friendship between renowned abolitionists Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass and the pair’s fight for women’s rights and to abolish slavery in the United States of America.
Directed by Kenyatta Rogers, the two-hour show is a historical look at key dates that impacted the relationship between these two great change-makers who were not always on the same page.
Although their friendship endured for nearly 45 years as they agitated a nation, they also agitated each other. The pair didn’t correspond for a year when Douglass reneged on fighting for women’s right to vote in favor of securing voting rights for black men.
In their early years, Anthony and Douglass seemingly had little in common. She was white and born into a comfortable Quaker home in Massachusetts, committed to social equality. Douglass, a black slave, fathered by an unknown white man, was born in a shack in Maryland forbidden to learn to read and write.
Their paths would converge, however, with their desire to put an end to the racist institution of slavery, one that Douglass knew first hand, having seen brutal beatings and lived in abject poverty, with no hope for freedom.
The play opens with their meeting in the fall of 1849 in Rochester, New York, where Anthony, a former school principal, had given up her job to help her father run the family’s farm.
The site was where numerous abolitionists met, and Douglass, who had escaped slavery, was one of them who came to discuss a moral strategy.
A gifted orator, Douglass had penned his first autobiography and was sought after as an author and lecturer. Anthony was gaining a reputation as an activist and organizer, and Douglass urged her to use her words as weapons for moral change.
In the play, Marni Penning plays Anthony and brings a convincing depth to the role, full of fire and passion in her beliefs. These include that one person should never own another and that women should have the same rights as men to vote, own property and go to college.
Penning is believable beyond doubt when Douglass asks Anthony why she has never married. Despite numerous marriage offers, she notes that unless a man accepts her as his equal, he could just keep stepping.
Ro Boddie plays Douglass and wonderfully conveys Douglass’ brilliance and complexity, particularly when he argues to support the 15th Amendment which will allow voting rights for black men but deny voting rights to women.
Anthony would feel betrayed by their agreement to fight for “universal suffrage,” but Douglass would call the move, “Equality piece by piece.” When 24 years passed by and women still were denied voting rights, he realized the cost of compromising one’s beliefs.
“The Agitators” is chock full of intimate and little-known details about these larger than life personalities, as in the relationship between Douglass and his first wife Anna Murray, a free black woman whose love inspired his second, and successful, escape attempt. An accomplished violinist, Murray could barely read and write and sent a tutor packing when Douglass hired one. When Murray died one year after their house was torched in Rochester, Douglass would undergo a year-long bout of depression.
Rounding out the ensemble are two other characters not originally in the script, Adanna Paul and Josh Adams discreetly appear and disappear onstage. They play characters that include Murray and a racist white man who disapproves of Douglass and Anthony talking openly at a baseball game. They also serve as set movers.
Captions aid the intensity of the acting for the deaf and hard of hearing where the power of Anthony and Douglass’ actual quotes are projected on a background screen. The play’s musical selections and an interactive display outside the theater featuring more on the lives of Anthony and Douglass also add to the experience.
During these chaotic political times, “The Agitators” is a timely look at how two unlikely friends challenged the highest halls of government, fought for equal rights and changed the course of history.