“The Agitators” Details a Friendship Between Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass

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Photo by Meredith Longo

By Karen Isaacs

Abolition and Universal Suffrage were two major causes that galvanized Americans from the 1840s to the 20th century.

Two of the leaders of these fights were Frederick Douglas and Susan B. Anthony. But how many people know that these two were also friends?

The Agitators by Mat Smart, now at West Hartford’s Playhouse on Park through Sunday, June 12, tells the story of the friendship which began in Rochester, New York when Anthony was in her 20s and Douglas and his family were living on farmland owned by Anthony’s Quaker father.

From there, we see a series of scenes depicting moments in their lives and their friendships until Douglas’ death in 1895.

The causes both were dedicated to led to conflicts that threatened their friendship. In the push to eliminate slavery, white women were a major force. But when the 15th amendment needed to be ratified it was omitted. The amendment stated that “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Anthony and others in the suffrage movement wanted the amendment to add “sex” to the wording.

Douglass argued with Anthony that the amendment would not be ratified with the change; and felt confident that women’s suffrage would be soon. In reality, the 19th amendment which granted women the right to vote in national elections was not ratified until 1920, though a few western states had allowed women to vote in local and state elections before that. Jeannette Rankin was elected to Congress from Montana in 1916. She couldn’t vote for president but she could vote to pass laws.

But Anthony angered Douglas when the national organizations working for suffrage allowed southern states and others to reject membership from black women. When the national conference was held in Atlanta (Anthony had objected to the choice), only white women were allowed to attend.

In our current contentious society, it is useful to remember that people could both agree and disagree strongly yet allow the relationship to continue.

A play that covers this much time and so many events can become a school lecture. While The Agitators avoids this for large parts of the two-act play, it does at times fall into the trap. The two performers must, while acting like friends, explain the issues, the background and the results. It can be hard to make that sound natural.

The scenic design by Randall Parsons is particularly effective. Playhouse on Park has a large stage that can be difficult to work with. He has used wood tones to create the idea of stripes on the floors and stars on the doors. It is a subtle reminder of our flag.

Kelly O’Donnell has two fine performers. I slightly preferred Sam Rosentrater as Anthony; her very posture showed her determination and she handled the aging elements (from 29 to her 80s)with ease. Her costumes by Vilinda McGregor were also effective.

Gabriel Lawrence as Douglass has the more volatile role. Overall, he uses that oratorical skill wisely and in limited areas.

The Agitators is not a great play, but it is fascinating and gives insight into subjects we often have only superficial knowledge about.

For tickets and information, visit PlayhouseTheatreGroup.org

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