Monday, February 3, 2020

ASF: "The Agitators"

Much of the state of the world today confirms philosopher George Santayana's warning that "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it". -- In the course of experiencing The Agitators at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, for twelve performances only, audiences are provoked to wonder at Susan B. Anthony's 1849 query: "How is this still happening?" as it addresses the 21st Century's same concerns regarding racial and gender inequalities.

The crux of the matter in playwright Mat Smart's script is a potent reminder that vestiges of the 19th Century barriers to the abolition of slavery and women's suffrage still exist, that America has yet to live up to its promise of equal justice, that "nothing changes if people don't talk about it",  and more: that they must agitate in order to ensure permanent change. -- And while there have been significant advancements for women and racial minorities, it will be up to the young people to realize that, in the words of Ida B. Wells: "it is always time to speak out against injustice".

Telling the decades-long remarkable friendship between Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass -- two icons of equal rights -- it broaches subjects we still too often find uncomfortable to address, as if the abolition of slavery and legislating the right to vote ended with the enactment of a few laws.

And we are party to seeing how two individuals who passionately agree on correcting the injustices inflicted on women and Blacks can be divided in their approaches and priorities: Susan B. Anthony's confrontational style and reluctance to compromise is countered by Frederick Douglass's favoring diplomacy. -- In the persons of actors Madeleine Lambert and Cedric Mays, who originated the roles when The Agitators debuted at the Geva Theatre in Rochester, NY in 2016/7, these characters come to life once again on the Octagon stage under Logan Vaughn's  direction.

With the play's messages at the forefront, Ms. Vaughn's direction seems intended to provoke audience action beyond the theatrical experience; laced with humor and pathos, Ms. Lambert and Mr. Mays invest a mixture of passion for a cause with a reservation that highlights the difficulties facing women and Blacks who dare to interact as friends at a time when their mere presence together, let alone any semblance of intimacy, would have raised the ire of too many.

As they grapple with breaking barriers and a challenge to "stay in the room with people who hate us", the fact that as a former slave, Douglass had been stripped of his humanity, and that as an unmarried woman, Anthony risked public ridicule in order to retain a woman's right to make her own decisions rather than become the property of a husband, with no rights of her own. -- Though she perceives her position to be as dangerous as his, Douglass reminds her that "your skin will keep you safe".

If and when people join forces with the courage of Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass to agitate for what is right by speaking out against all aspects of inequality, then "failure is impossible".