The Agitators opened at Theatre Horizon the night after the “Super Tuesday” presidential primary. Earlier that day, my newsfeed overflowed with stories of voters in Texas and California who waited hours in line to cast their ballots—some well into the small hours of the morning, long after the polls had closed. These delays tended to disproportionately affect areas with higher concentrations of non-white and working-class people.
Among the candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination, only one woman remained viable going into Super Tuesday; she finished a distant third or fourth in every race. The few prominent candidates of color dropped out weeks before the first primary was even held. It seems clear that this election cycle, like nearly every one since the country’s founding, will feature two white male candidates at the top of the tickets.
These facts drove home the message espoused by the two central characters in Mat Smart’s historical drama, Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony: “Do you believe this can ever be a country for all?” It’s a question that remains unanswered nearly 150 years after slavery was abolished in the US, a century after white women were enfranchised, and a half-century since the Civil Rights Act.
Intersectionality then and now
It’s also a question that Smart’s compelling but often blunt play doesn’t entirely consider. He packs a lot of biographical detail about Douglass (Steven Wright) and Anthony (Charlotte Northeast) into a dozen or so scenes, stretching from their initial acquaintance in Rochester, New York, to their dotage as leading public intellectuals and activists at the turn of the 20th century. At its best, the writing offers a warm portrait of their supportive but contentious friendship, buffeted here by the charming chemistry the two actors generate.
The action grapples with points of disagreement between Douglass and Anthony about the primacy of their respective causes. Douglass feels that Anthony doesn’t appropriately consider the struggles of Black women in her mission to uplift the entire sex. Anthony, in turn, contends that the privileges Douglass experiences as a man are not fully erased by his status as a person of color. She also questions why he has not taught his own wife to read, even as he advocates for the education of women and girls. These are interesting, thorny topics that also breed down to discussions we are still having today about intersectionality in feminism, politics, and the culture at large.
Yet the play itself often punts on its exploration of these issues. You can almost feel an awareness of the action getting too hot, at which point Smart pulls the proceedings back into buddy comedy territory. At its least successful, The Agitators comes across as an anodyne dramatization designed for the National Constitution Center or a high-school assembly.
A meeting of the minds
Theatre Horizon’s fine production cannot be faulted for the work’s rough patches. Cheyenne Barboza directs with a welcome sense of forward momentum that creates tension even when the script lags, and Marie Laster’s minimalist, slightly abstract set allows the action to travel seamlessly between locations and decades in the protagonists’ lives. Elliot Konstant’s lighting and projections aid in keeping the action moving at a steady clip.
Above all, the staging boasts strong acting from Wright and Northeast—who, perhaps most impressively, manage to carry their characters from their twenties to their eighties without the slightest bit of old-age hokum. (Northeast does have to suffer a severe gray fright wig in the final scenes, though.) They present a meeting of minds, a friendship of equals, and a compelling support system for each other as they weather adversity and fame in equal measures.
We are still striving to become the country that Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony dreamed of two centuries ago. The Agitators is a reminder of what we’ve done, good and bad, and what we still need to confront and change.
What, When, Where
The Agitators. By Mat Smart. Directed by Cheyenne Barboza. Through March 22, 2020, at Theatre Horizon, 401 DeKalb St., Norristown, PA. (610) 283-2230 or theatrehorizon.org.
Theatre Horizon is an ADA-compliant venue with all-gender restrooms.