port of harlem magazine
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The Agitators
October 25 – November 7, 2018

the agitators

How the “The Agitators” story was told and how it was presented was the most surprising and the best aspect of the play, now on stage in Washington, DC at Mosaic Theater. The play is about the very long activist relationship between two icons:  Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony. Much of the play is centered in Rochester, New York, where they both lived.

How does one remain “pure” to causes is the play’s reoccurring theme. Anthony accuses Douglass for selling out when he advocates for the passage of the 15th Amendment that extends the right the vote to Black men, but not women.  Douglass accuses Anthony when she participates in a women’s rights conference in Atlanta that excludes Black women. 

As with any play about the lives of historical people, you want to learn more about them and you want to listen to the facts. In some plays, factual lines are blurted out as if the performers are dictating a recipe. However, that is not the case in this one. James Morrison’s projection designs greatly helped us follow the tale’s time lapses effortlessly.

With unobtrusive and informative projections and sound effects, and with conversational language by playwright Mat Smart, director KenYatta Rogers was able to meld an entertaining, sometimes comical package that made me, a Frederick Douglass fanatic, happy and eager to learn more about Susan B. Anthony.

The work of Smart and Rogers probably made the tasks of the actors much easier, but they were nevertheless convincing. As I was hoping, Marni Penning, as the gentile, but aggressive Susan, did not disappoint me.

I learned of Penning after being amazed with her performances in “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been” where she first portrayed a bosomy blond, then a man and in "The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek,” where she acted as a crusty White supremacist. This was my first time watching her act knowing that she was the person behind the character, and that was special treat unto itself.

After seeing R.A. Montgomery in “Fighter for Freedom: The Frederick Douglass Story” at Douglass’ Cedar Hill home, in Washington, D.C., several times over several decades, Ro Biddie as Douglass in this performance had a high hill to climb, but he too was very convincing. The ensemble characters, Adanna Paul and Josh Adams, had no speaking parts, but they too managed to become unique and memorable.  Amy MacDonald’s costumes, especially those worn by Penning, were pageantry.

We dedicate this article to photo archivist Donna M. Wells who would call Frederick Douglass her husband.  She even wore a locket with a picture of Frederick Douglass.  Wells was a strong supporter of Port Of Harlem, often infusing historical knowledge into our articles. She died just before the opening of the exhibit she curated for the Museu Afro Brasil in Sao Paulo.  See:
Ground Breaking Opening US Civil Rights Struggle and Achievements: From King to Obama

Rochester:  Frederick Douglass Susan B. Anthony Memorial Bridge

Rochester Airport :  Frederick A. Douglas - Concourse A and Susan B. Anthony - Concourse B
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