Friday, March 6, 2020

'The Agitators': Phoenix presents a history lesson that struggles to convey emotional meaning

Our ancestors who pressed for social change wielded a two-edged sword: Without social media to aid them or
A spellbound Susan B. Anthony recalls the musical passion of her fellow agitator, Frederick Douglass,
resist them, they depended on retail politics. That's all to the good, as we have been frequently reminded as our customary primary process awkwardly unfolds. 

Public lectures were a performance art in which personalities and issues fused in the public square. Activist intellectuals had to travel without conveniences and lecture without microphones. Their persuasive powers couldn't be developed and exercised without hospitable venues and outlets for the printed word. One feels that only people of extraordinary gifts of energy and focus could thus distinguish themselves and engage the public. An indignant Twitter presence was unavailable to them, and they couldn't rake in vast sums bloviating on cable TV.

That's the milieu in which Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony moved and excelled. Their sometimes combative friendship as advocates for progress over many 19th-century decades provides the material for "The Agitators," a two-act drama by Mat Smart now on Phoenix Theatre's Russell Stage.

As seen Thursday night as the production entered its second weekend, the play rests on the capable shoulders of just two actors: Jerome Beck and Lauren Briggeman. Directed by Mikael Burke, the actors have to negotiate a script heavily weighted with exposition and rhetoric. The human dimension is brought out in performance, but the mantle of educational theater is draped heavily over the action. 

It's both an opportunity and a burden, The two figures represent the American struggle to achieve equal justice under law, which continues today to vex the progress of women and black people. So Douglass and Anthony are necessarily symbolic figures, and the production honors that stature even as it reveals their personalities, their domestic arrangements and their pastimes.

By habit I resist "working up" my knowledge of historical figures who are given dramatic treatment. I think the playwright should have a certain amount of latitude to depart from strict adherence to biographical facts. The play's the thing, after all. Since seeing "The Agitators," I've simply sought to put a foundation under what the play gave me by drawing upon a few relevant scraps from my personal library.

So I confirmed that the agitation practiced by the Anti-Slavery Society with which both the white feminist and the black ex-slave were associated devolved into disagreements about mission. These came to a head after the Civil War, as "The Agitators" crisply sets before us, in the struggle to frame and pass the 15th Amendment. The right to vote was extended to ex-slaves and, by implication, all men of whatever race. Women continued to be excluded, so the price of agitation necessarily had to involve where to stake the claims of progress, and where to wait. 

Which was the fundamental block to achieving the American dream: white supremacy or male supremacy? The intensity of resolving such matters blazes forth as one scene succeeds the next in the second act. The denouement of this tension is subtly moving, and the final scene puts a blessing upon the unlikely friendship as Anthony speaks over Douglass' grave. As the lights fade, in the background the ghostly escaped slave and liberation spokesman embeds in the anti-slavery suffragist's memory his beloved violin-playing.
Frederick Douglass in 1870

Douglass had several other wrangles with white abolitionists that necessarily have to be left out of a two-character drama. I'm glad that some of his ferocity, which may still be applied to the persistence of racism today, is conspicuous in Beck's portrayal. I have a few quibbles with how he inhabits the role visually, however. I doubt the kind of haircut Beck's Douglass displays was possible before the electric razor. 

It's not that actors playing historical figures should be the spittin' image of the original, but Douglass' leonine mane is famous; so is the fact that his full head of hair had turned white by his early 50s. I think aging could have been signaled more authentically in this production, and not just by Douglass' needing to be helped up off the floor by Anthony at one point. 

Both actors conveyed a feeling for the passing years in their carriage, but I wonder if some noticeable whitening of Douglass' hair might have been possible in a brief offstage moment. I remember learning somewhere that Douglass is believed to have been the most photographed American of the 19th century. That puts an admittedly extra responsibility on producers when it comes to representing him onstage.

Speaking of representation, Inseung Park's set design is required to look like various settings, both rural and urban, both grand and modest. Lighting and sound design (Zak Hunter and Michael Lamirand, respectively) lend crucial assistance to the necessary illusion. But I was persistently puzzled by a large fluted column, conspicuously slanted, on one side of the stage. Obviously, its position challenged the realism of the story (as did the
Partially demolished building along US75 near downtown Dallas.
contemporary pop recordings heard when the stage was idle). Perhaps I was susceptible to it because I have just returned from a visit to the Texas metropolis where the "Leaning Tower of Dallas" has become a temporary sensation. But of course that phenomenon is accidental, and this show's leaning column is assuredly not.

I'm going to assume the Phoenix's tilted pillar was meant as symbolic of the classical verities, on which the American public was founded, .having acquired a precarious slant in the course of our nation's troubled 19th century. If that's the case, the way Beck and Briggeman played these two American heroes justified that gravity-challenged architectural detail in the set design.

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