Prior to seeing playwright Mat Smart‘s drama “The Agitators” Friday at Phoenix Theatre, I had the advantage of having interviewed its director, Mikael Burke, earlier in the week . My extensive Q & A with Burke, published on the same day I saw the play, offered me substantial insight and knowledge of what to expect, making the experience all the more meaningful.
Smart’s engaging, and often fascinating play centers on the dynamics of the enduring 45-year friendship, and sometimes contentious rivalry, between social reformers Susan B. Anthony who championed women’s right and abolitionist Frederick Douglas. Meeting in Rochester, New York, in the 1840s, they are drawn to each other by their shared idealism and mutual desire for change. Eventually, they become internationally renowned activists whose movements collide and their friendship and status as allies, is tested as they both agitate the government and each during their shared struggle to ensure the safety and rights of blacks and women. The play concludes at the time of Douglas’ death in 1895.
As mentioned previously, of all the sharp insight offered by Burke regarding Smart’s play in our interview, it was its relevancy to today’s often combative political climate that was most on target. He spoke about the characters in the play wrestling with the same things many of us are dealing with today when he said”We are in the middle of this election cycle, where many of are struggling with ‘How do I reconcile the person I know and the person they are supporting in this election.” I found his observation that the play succeeds at putting forth this question and others that underscore human nature, such as “Can I put others needs before my own?” and “Can friends also have rivalries?,” are right on point.
Burke, who, as noted in my profile on him, is a rising star in the theatre arena, and Chicago in particular demonstrates, why he is becoming more and more in demand. His choice of Lauren Briggeman, one of Indy’s finest actors (she is also founder and artistic director of Summit Performance Indianapolis) to play Anthony and Chicago actor Jerome Beck who is solid in the role of Douglass reveal his talent for effective casting. Together, they create a chemistry that makes the intimacy between the two characters believable.
Burke’s skills as a director are also evident in the subtleties and nuances that he adds to Smart’s script. I am speaking specifically of a scene in which Frederick soaks his injured wrist and Susan, her aching feet is the same tub of water. In another they both lay on the floor, opposite one another, head to head. The hint of sexual tension between the two characters makes them vulnerable human being rather than mere one dimensional historic figures. Also resulting from Burke’s finesse, was one of the play’s most powerful scenes which takes place when Susan furiously confronts Frederick for his support of the 15th Amendment which won the vote for black men but excluded both black and white women, and which made her feel that he had betrayed her and her cause.
Having only seen a handful of shows at this nearly two-year old Phoenix Theatre venue I am still enamored with its ability to create more elaborate sets and impressed with its sound and lighting capabilities. Deserving of plaudits for their the production’s polished technical elements are Inseung Park for his appealing set design, lighting designer Zac Hunter, Guy Clark who created the costumes (he also designs for the IRT and Dance Kaleidoscope), sound designer Michael Lamirand and properties designer and stage manager Daniel Bukel.
With it’s relevancy to today’s current events and recognition of all that the trailblazers Anthony and Douglass accomplished, the play was also a reminder that true progress in the areas of racial and gender equality is very slow going. A case in point, is the very existence of the Black Lives Matter and Me Too movements to counteract police brutality against people of color and sexual violence against women more than a hundred years after Douglass and Anthony shook things up. The fact that the two icons managed to forge their deep friendship at a time when such a bond between two people of the opposite sex, much less one between a black man and a white women, were unheard of, is itself an inspiration. The fact that they both led such groundbreaking movements and were allies as well boggles the mind. For those who like to imagine what historical figures, especially this unlikely pair, might have said to each other behind closed the doors, this play is definitely a must-see.
For tickets and information about “The Agitators” which runs through March 22, call 317-635-2381 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.