Acacia Theatre Company


Review by Marilyn Jozwik of Wisconsin Theater Spotlight

“The unlikely friendship of Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass spanned some 45 years during some of the most tumultuous times in American history.

Those two extraordinary figures and times are the substance of “The Agitators,” by Mat Smart, currently at Acacia Theatre Company, who brought this beautifully staged production to their intimate space with outstanding performances. Lori Woodall-Schaufler directs.

In the opening scene we immediately see the contrasts and the connections of the characters. The year is 1849 and the place is the Anthony family’s farm in Rochester, New York, where Douglass and his family are staying as guests. The Anthonys were Quakers and believed in the equality of all men. Their home was often the meeting place for abolitionists, such as Douglass.

Susan (Susie Duecker) ventures out into the field to meet with a pensive Douglass (Dennis Lewis) and inquire how he liked the peach cobbler she made earlier. Her impatience and feistiness are evident while he slowly and carefully reflects on his responses. Susan is already becoming known for her activism,but realizes she has chosen a different path than most women. “I am 29 and should have six or seven children by now.” Douglass, meanwhile, has escaped slavery, yet admits, “There is no place in America that I’m safe.” At one point Susan asks, “How do we end slavery?”

Each scene wonderfully recreates an important meeting with the two as their fight to end slavery intensifies. We see Douglass’s fiery nature and learn about his life. “Slavery stole the first 20 years of my life,” he tells Susan. She confides that if a man would propose an equal marriage she may consider it. Their relationship grows close and tender as he continues his fight for his race, which came with the 14th and 15th Amendments, after the Civil War.

In their 1867 meeting in Haymarket Square we begin to see cracks in their common cause. While Frederick continues his fight to get the vote for black men, Susan’s attention turns to getting equal rights for women, particularly suffrage. They realize that their current goals have put them at odds with each other. Susan bemoans their separation, saying, “It felt like we were in lockstep.”

As Act 2 opens, the pair have been out of touch for a while and meet at a baseball game where Frederick’s son is playing. The two reconnect and begin to engage in the easygoing conversation they had for years, sharing the progress of their causes. Suddenly, Frederick gets up to leave when he realizes the police have been called because someone has seen a black man too close to a white woman. Susan objects, wondering what will she tell the police. “Your skin will keep you safe,” says Frederick.

In other scenes we witness the burning of Frederick’s home, which he believed was the work of the Ku Klux Klan, and the death of his wife Anna.

In a most charming scene, the two meet at the White House in 1888, where Susan will present her cause to President Cleveland. Frederick was certain that after black men were given the right to vote with the enactment of the 15th Amendment, women would soon follow. “I thought you were right behind us,” says Frederick.

There is both power and tenderness in Lewis’ and Duecker’s performances. Both display unbridled passion as their characters articulate how they’re going to devote their lives to bring equality to all in America. Yet, they never lose sight of the admiration, tenderness and devotion their characters had for each other.

Lewis assumes a stateman’s air as Douglass waxes eloquent: “Words can shine a light on injustice.” In Act 2, he leaves the stage with a fiery recitation of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” that brings goosebumps.

Duecker has memorable moments too and is most delightful when she doesn’t take her larger-than-life character too seriously, as when she takes time to ease her tired feet in a bucket of warm water, with Frederick assisting. Both Lewis and Duecker never let their characters lose their humanity.

Enhancing these marvelous performances is the use of visuals at the back of the stage, especially the opening montage of depictions of slavery and the final one showing figures of the equality movements. Scenes between help place the characters at the Anthony and Douglass homesteads and other locations. Characters were also outfitted well in period costumes. A crisp, full sound system provided violin and piano music, sometimes coinciding with Frederick’s own movements on the violin. Douglass played the violin for his family, and his grandson, Joseph, became a concert violinist.”

Read the review here.

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