Acacia Theatre Company says that The Agitators gives “life and resonance”.

Review by Anne Siegel of

“Two important figures from America’s past form an unlikely but enduring friendship in The Agitators, the current production by Acacia Theatre Company.

In The Agitators, playwright Mat Smart focuses on the unlikely friendship between suffragist Susan B. Anthony and one of her most famous contemporaries, Frederick Douglass. They first meet in 1849 at Anthony’s family home in Rochester, NY. Anthony’s father, a devout Quaker and abolitionist, is an admirer of Douglass who regularly hosts him and his family for Sunday dinners. The friendship between Susan and Frederick continues until Douglass’s death in 1895.

From the moment we meet 29-year-old Anthony, we learn that she is somewhat of an anomaly in her world. She is single, and she comments that most women her age are married and have “six or seven children.” During her first conversation with Douglass, she mentions that if she were married and decided to divorce, she would be at a legal disadvantage. In that era, her husband would legally claim the children and all their shared property, and she could be left without a cent. She remarks that this is among the many injustices against women that she seeks to correct.

Douglass, an escaped slave who later rises to prominence as a speaker, writer and activist, replies that he knows all too well about injustice. He talks candidly about his life as a slave. He says that his birth date was never officially recorded, “just as one would not recognize when a sheep or cow was born.” As a grown man, he is forced to select a date for marking his birthday.

As a child, Douglass was sold to a nearby plantation where he had no friends or family. Several times, he recalls, his mother would walk the 12 miles between their plantations to see him after dark. It was the only time she could slip away without alerting her owners. She would sing him to sleep, then trudge back 12 miles to her home before dawn.

These firsthand narratives give life and resonance to this piece, which proceeds chronologically through their crusades for equal rights. Both of these self-described “agitators” travel frequently to spread their message, and the play follows them through the years.

Douglass, who focuses on voting rights for African-American men, sees victory in 1870 when federal laws. Later, Douglass admits to Anthony that her crusade for voting rights for women, would be won in only a few years. But 10 years later, Anthony is still fighting hard. Douglass seems more surprised by the government’s failure to allow women voting than he does during a personal tragedy in 1872. His Rochester home is burned to the ground, probably the work of a white arsonist. A naïve Anthony disputes his claims about what caused the fire. Nonetheless, Douglass decides to move his family closer to Washington, DC.

Under the able direction of Lori Woodall-Schaufler, The Agitators is less of a history lesson than a deep dive into the personalities of these two activists and their dedication to related casuses. Both Susie Decker (as Anthony) and Dennis Lewis (as Douglass) deliver realistic portrayals of their individual characters. In this two-hander, one might decide that Lewis has the more difficult role. He must play a character much older than himself, and, as Douglass, he is often required to play the violin.

Both actors adeptly convey their character’s stoic demeanor through the years, even when personal tragedies threaten to throw them off-track. They console and congratulate each other in a series of letters and during brief visits. They display an authentic concern for each other’s welfare.

The Agitators is a good reminder that the personal sacrifices of these two have resulted in rights that we Americans take for granted today. Douglass is often apart from his wife and children as he travels the country, while Anthony realizes that she cannot be an effective force for change if she marries and has children. The play’s setting is a simple one that changes frequently during its three-hour performance. Set designer Ashley Petrowsky pairs with properties co-designers Abbey Pitchford and Alexandria Eggert to bring fresh visual effects (and a few costume changes) to designate changes in location as well as the passing of time. Projections Creator Grace Michaels amplifies the historical time period in a series of slides that depict scenes such as slave auctions, lynchings, and political meetings, as an (all-male) Senate creates the foundations of government we know today. Lighting Designer Dan Hummel excels at setting the mood. Credit also goes to Sound Designer/Engineer Colin Kovarik for enlivening the story with musical sequences of the era, as well as offering a vast audio library of naturalistic sounds.

The only quibble this reviewer has with The Agitator is the play’s extremely long running time: a full three hours, with one intermission. Trimming the play by 30-45 minutes would be helpful for maintaining audience attention spans (although it should be noted that not a single person left the theater early during the performance attended by this reviewer). It is to the cast and director’s credit that this very long play doesn’t sag at any time during the performance.

In terms of the company’s background, Acacia has been part of Milwaukee’s theatrical scene since 1980. Under the guidance of longtime artistic director Janet Peterson, it produces plays that have parallels to Christian beliefs. Acacia’s repertoire ranges from the recent (and popular) Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberly, (a sequel to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, ) to an assortment of both well-known and rarely produced mysteries, dramas and musicals.

For the past couple of years, Acacia’s “home” has been located in the downstairs theater space inside a large church. The Colonial-styled church was built about 15 years ago in a leafy, wealthy Milwaukee County suburb, but it wasn’t until recent years that the congregation added its small theater. The intimate space offers excellent visual and sound capabilities that are beyond what one finds at some non-profit theaters in the Milwaukee area.

It should also be noted that Acacia, following the lead of at least one other non-profit Milwaukee theater, offers tickets to every performance on a pay-what-you-can basis. Eliminating financial barriers allows more members of Milwaukee’s arts-loving community to experience and enjoy live theater, and one applauds the theater’s ability to keep afloat with donations.”

Cast: Dennis Lewis (Frederick Douglass), Susie Duecker (Susan B. Anthony).

Technical: Set: Ashley Petrowsky; Costumes: Marie Wilke; Lighting: Dan Hummel; Sound Designer/Engineer: Colin Kovarik; Props Co-designers: Abbey Pitchford and Alexandria Eggert; Projections Creator: Grace Michels.

Critic: Anne Siegel

Date Reviewed: June 2024
Read the review here.
Get tickets here.