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A CurtainUp DC Review
The protagonists are Frederick Douglass (a very credible performance by Ro Boddie), the self-educated bi-racial freed slave who fought hard for the rights of negroes, as African Americans were called in the 19th-century, to vote. At the same time, Susan B. Anthony (Marni Penning in a beautifully strong performance) was fighting for women's right to vote. The tension and respect between the performers is remarkable for its authenticity.
The philosopher/activists dialogue spans from their first meeting in the 1840's until Douglass' death in 1895. Anthony continues to think about and act upon Douglass' political ideas until her death in 1906. How much of their conversations — sometimes compatible and sometimes contentious —in Smart's play is true and how much is poetic license is never made clear. But the spirit of what they say certainly rings true.
Maybe Frederick Douglass, the son of an African American slave and her white owner, was conceived in rape. Maybe Frederick Douglass chided Susan B. Anthony about the fact that being a spinster was a sorrowful state. Maybe Susan B. Anthony pointedly referred to Frederick Douglass' ignorance and avoidance of domestic chores. Such aspects of the play flesh out the rhetoric and sometimes makes the characters more human.
Clothed by Amy MacDonald, Susan B. Anthony is fortunate to wear beautiful gowns while Frederick Douglass is always dapper. The proscenium arch at the Mosaic Theater presents a challenge for any scenic designer but Jonathan Dahm Robertson makes the stage quite intimate by limiting the playing area to a three-sided box representing a homely environment. The scene in which Frederick Douglass appears in a black silhouette redolent of the engaging work by contemporary African American artist Kara Walker is not only clever but memorable.
Where The Agitators falters is in the extraneous scenes involving a male and female (Adanna Paul and Josh Adams) engaging in pretentious Movement 101 exercises that are distracting and unnecessarily slow the pace of exposition.
Director Kenyatta Rogers has added a sound track of contemporary songs such as "Sisters Are Doin' It For Themselves," which does not quite work. Then there are the rear screen projections (of which there is an epidemic in Washington theaters). Some, such as Mosaic's displaying for the hearing impaired the words spoken on stage, are commendable. But bathing the stage in bright red to represent the firebombing of Douglass' home in Rochester, New York is over the top.
While the first and last twenty minutes . are the play's strongest, last night, and presumably for the rest of the run, the most moving performance was after the play ended. Having taken their curtain calls to a standing ovation, the actors joined hands as did the audience in solemn, a cappella singing of "We Shall Overcome." Many of us were in tears.
The Agitators by Mat Smart
Directed by Kenyatta Rogers
Cast: Ro Boddie (Frederick Douglass); Susan B. Anthony (Marni Penning); Adanna Paul (Ensemble); Josh Adams (Ensemble).
Set Design by Jonathan Dahm Robertson
Lighting Design by Alberto Segarra
Costume Design by Amy MacDonald
Sound Design by David Lamont Wilson
Running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes including one intermission. Mosaic Theater, 1333 H Street, NE, Washington, DC. mosaictheater.org. October 24 to November 25, 2018. Reviewed by Susan Davidson at October 29, 2018 performance
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