"Why do we keep having the same fight?"
Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass keep asking each other versions of that question throughout The Agitators, and eventually we in the audience start to wonder as well. Not about the source of the pair's tension, which is pretty obvious, but about why playwright Mat Smart has chosen to dramatize the most urgent struggles in American history in the form of what amounts to an extended polite disagreement.
On paper, The Agitators sounds like a premise with promise. The real-life Douglass and Anthony knew each other for decades, mutual admirers who agreed on the principle of universal voting rights. However, they had different personalities and priorities; as one might expect, Anthony was disappointed in any legislation (such as the 15th Amendment) that granted liberties to men but not women, while Douglass disapproved of accommodating segregationists under the women's suffrage umbrella.
Despite the luxury of a 140-minute running time (including intermission), Smart's script remains firmly in the rut of a hagiographic history lesson. By all means both figures deserve to be revered, but both would be better served by a more daring script that humanized them more fully.
One way to accomplish that might have been to take a deeper dive into a single meeting, rather than skipping across the second half of the 19th century in a series of disconnected encounters that mire the duo in exposition. Scenic designer Sarah Brandner has created a series of picture frames for director Signe V. Harriday's production on Park Square's Proscenium Stage. It's an elegant set, but one that all too accurately represents the play as a sequence of static tableaux.
The casting, at least, is ideal — as it has to be, given that the play has only two roles. Both Mikell Sapp and Emily Gunyou Halaas are intelligent and subtle performers, readily embodying the sage Douglass and the upright Anthony respectively. Writer Smart toils to distinguish their personalities, but their shared gravitas ends up drowning out any differences.
Without a clear dramatic through-line, the play proceeds as an episodic sequence of dialogue exchanges. We're told so much that happens offstage, and requires such extensive explanation, that we have little basis for emotional investment in the individuals before our eyes. Even the play's most poignant scene, as Douglass mourns his wife, turns on a character we've only known remotely, with Douglass singing praises to an unseen figure somewhere offstage.
Anna Murray-Douglass was a specific person, and a remarkable one, but Anthony and Douglass also repeatedly discuss African-American women in the collective sense. Both agitators are pursuing reforms that, if either were accomplished separately, would still leave black women disenfranchised. In America's terrible tapestry of persecution, it's women of color whose voices have been most silenced, and even such eminent voices as those of Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony can't fill that silence.
IF YOU GO:
Park Square Theatre
20 W. Seventh Place, St. Paul
Through October 28; www.parksquaretheatre.org