‘The Agitators’ inspire at Gloucester Stage



GLOUCESTER – “Bringing history to life” is about as cliched as it gets, but it happens to be an apt description for what Gloucester Stage’s current production, The Agitators, succeeds in doing.

Mat Smart’s play takes us into the 19th century world of icons of equal rights Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony, beginning with their first meeting as young abolitionists in Rochester, New York.

After escaping slavery, Douglass became a national leader of the abolitionist movement and later, as an orator, writer and statesman, a powerful voice for equal rights for blacks and for women.

Anthony, from a Quaker family in Rochester, was an abolitionist at an early age, and became a prominent national political figure as an advocate for women’s suffrage and equality.

The play opens in 1849 with an early encounter between Douglass (played by James Ricardo Milord) and Anthony (Sarah Elizabeth Bedard). It was the beginning of a 45-year friendship and political alliance that would become severely tested as they disagreed over strategy for achieving their common goals.

The play avoids preachiness, allowing the story of the respective movements toward equality to be told through the evolution of the friendship between Anthony and Douglass as the events of the mid to late 19th century unfold around them.

At times, they seem to agitate each other as much as the nation.

They disagreed over the language of the 15th Amendment, which declared 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 believed that Douglass should join her in demanding that “on the basis of sex” also be included.

“It is what we could get,” Douglass pleads with her. “It is a step in the right direction. What if we try for both and get neither?”

But Anthony is deeply disappointed in her friend, calling him “a coward.”

Later, its Douglass’s turn to be disappointed, when Anthony seeks needed southern support for women’s suffrage by agreeing to hold a convention of the National American Woman Suffrage Association in Atlanta, even knowing that it would be racially segregated if held in the southern city.

As Douglass, Milord delivers a superbly passionate performance that honors the great orator, writer and tireless warrior for equality.
Bedard is equally impressive as the woman whose name is synonymous with women’s suffrage, even if she never lived to see the passage of the 19th Amendment. Bedard captures the intelligence, independence and fearless determination of Anthony, even when she confronts Douglass’s hypocrisy for encouraging his own wife’s traditional role as homemaker and support system for her husband.

Under Jacqui Parker’s direction, the GSC production brings us on a journey through a half-century of the intersecting lives of Douglass and Anthony. The creative use of costumes, makeup and props signal the passage of time and the different stages and ages of their lives.

A rotating raked stage, along with projected background images, is also used effectively to create not only different scenes, but to suggest the passage of time from the days of slavery to the dawn of the 20th century.

The Agitators is a powerful tribute, not only to Douglass and Anthony, but to how far, thanks to them, we have come – even if we still have a ways to go.

The Agitators runs through Oct. 7 at Gloucester Stage, 267 East Main Street, Gloucester, Mass. Performances are Wednesday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. Purchase tickets online or phone the Box Office at 978-281-4433.

This review originally appeared in the September 18, 2018 Wakefield Daily Item.

(Photos by Gary Ng)

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