So life happens, as it so often does, in a terrible, disgusting offensive dark world on a Sunday. That Sunday took me to the two o’clock matinee of The Agitators at Park Square Theatre, and in those two hours I recognized that life, as truly incredibly toxic, barbaric, and cruel as it is, could be worse. Worse for not the works of men and women dedicating themselves to the struggles of humanity despite the angry diatribes of the ignorant; otherwise known as pricks. The Agitators, featuring Emily Halaas and Mikell Sapp, shows the story of Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass as they become titans of civil rights as well as friends.
I’ll be frank, I wasn't expecting a lot from this show. Historical theater and reenactments tow a very specific line between after-school special and drama; it's boring and more than a little inaccurate. This wasn't an issue for this show. I suspect this is because The Agitators isn't interested in exclusively creating a historical piece, but a protest piece as well as a meta critique of present day activism.
Following the friendship of Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglas, we discover the ideals of feminism/temperance and abolition grow and even butt heads in early America. But oddly enough the show doesn't dedicate itself to the mechanics of protest, or as Douglas put it “agitating”. It uses the little history we know, or think we know, as exposition. When it comes to their speeches, their books, their great moments, we the audience don't hear much outside of accolades and compliments. Instead, all we see is the personal in the principal.
Emily Halaas shows us an eager and eventually grayed Susan B. Anthony. As she grows we see what she sees: that changing the world isn't something you partake to benefit your ideals, but the other way around, that the greater good is a subjective idea, and that the world we live in has shades of gray that must force agonizing compromise.
And beside her is Mikell Sapp’s Frederick Douglass. The booming figure is not diminished, but textured in Sapp. What is assumed in one of the greatest orators and civil rights icons is seen in the show: Douglass is a touch pretentious. The trait never demeans or annoys, rather it highlights the necessity of confidence, something Anthony gains more and more of in the show. While Douglass doesn't grow in the same leaps and bounds as she does, we witness the countless blows he takes to become a legend. In this, we're reminded why so many call on his memory to inspire the fight for equality.
I could say so much about Mikell Sapp and Emily Halaas’s work, but essentially it humanizes. We dehumanize the people we pray to in our textbooks, we forget their laughter and hypocrisy and idiosyncrasies as well as all the other features of their humanity. This show restores that humanity and beguiles at something more.
Civil rights in this country has always been strangely myopic. Fighting for the rights of one minority always seems to conflict or distract from another. This is especially noticeable when looking at women's rights and civil rights. The Agitators demonstrates great moments of this. And it forces very real questions on to the audience. Which minority has the least equity? What does a cause lose in having a singular focus? What do we do when justice for one group is injustice for another? This play makes use of very real problems in intersectionality and it is fascinating to look at in early America.
As I was watching the show I kept questioning if something would be done to hurt the show, for it seemed to be near perfect. But then the first of many blackouts occured and protest music began to play. I don't mean old protest mainstays made during Vietnam, I mean Kendrick Lamar, Childish Gambino, and more. It is so glaringly bad. The music overplays the show’s hand to the point that it's punching you in the face. Really Park Square? You didn't think I was gonna figure out the show without playing “Alright”? I read books, I eat tuna, I’m not gonna miss the mark. You didn't have to use the AV equivalent of fidget spinners, I was enjoying the subtlety.
That glaring misstep aside, the show delights with interesting performances that will entertain and challenge you. Take the time to see this two hour show and be sure to bring a friend, the conversations afterward will be worth more than the tickets ever could.