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The Agitators
by Mat Smart
Directed by Lisa Tejero
Upstream Theater
October 4, 2019

Jerome Samuel Davis, Erin Kelley
Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com
Upstream Theater

For me, The Agitators at Upstream Theater is an educational experience as well as a theatrical one, and I would imagine the same would be true for many others in the audience. Following the true but not generally highlighted friendship of two well-known and important historical figures, this production also serves as an ideal showcase for its excellent actors. Its also notable for a memorable musical soundtrack and strong production values.

A lot of audience members will (or should be) familiar with prominent 19th Century activists Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony. I had read a fair amount about both before, but I wasn’t aware that the two shared a close friendship that lasted for decades. This play focuses on that friendship, and on both central figures’ lives in devotion to their causes, the abolition of slavery and equal rights (including voting rights) for African-Americans and for women. The story spans the decades, starting in the 1840s when Douglass (Jerome Samuel Davis) and Anthony (Erin Kelley) first meet and form a friendship, through the years before and after the Civil War, to the effort to pass the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, and in the continuing fight for women’s sufferage. The two are portrayed as affectionate friends and allies, but also strong personalities who occasionally clash in pursuit of their causes, as their focuses and approaches do not always align. It’s a fascinating portrayal of the struggles that activists can face, and the temptations to compromise some goals in favor of others. It also shows both characters challenging one another at various times, putting strains on their life-enduring friendship. It’s an in-depth look at these two and at a particularly tumultuous time in American history.

The casting is ideal here, with both performers giving terrific performances and working together especially well, showing an incredible bond between their characters. The strong presence and historical importance of both Douglass and Anthony is well-embodied by Davis and Kelley, as is their humanity, as well as the passage of time and aging of the two central figures over the years and decades. It’s a compelling portrayal from both, and the relationship forms the foundation of the drama. There’s also a strong musical soundtrack provided by Syrhea Conaway that is essentially a character in itself, lending much poignancy to the production.

The set, by Patrick Huber, is versatile and evocative, consisting of a wooden stage area and several blocks that are moved around by stagehands as needed, backed by excellent projections. The costumes by Michele Friedman Siler also add to the sense of time, place, and character. There’s also strong atmospheric lighting by Huber and excellent sound by Kareem Deanes. All of these elements, as well as the props by Jenny Smith and wigs by The Wig Associates, work together to make for an impressively credible production.

The Agitators is a compelling drama, with its important historical characters–and the top-notch performers portraying them–at front and center. It’s educational and enlightening, highlighting important historic events as well an timeless themes of equality and justice. It’s an impressive season opener for Upstream Theater.

Jerome Samuel Davis, Erin Kelley
Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com
Upstream Theater

Upstream Theater is presenting The Agitators at the Kranzberg Arts Center until October 13, 2019

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