By Andrea BraunContributing Writer

The title of the play is based on Frederick Douglass’ exhorting his followers to “Agitate. Agitate. Agitate.” This was later in his life, long after he met and became friends with Susan B. Anthony who was already doing just that in her late 20s.

Their friendship would last 45 years and their goals remain the same, though there are bumps in the road: both supported abolition and women’s rights. But it wasn’t all sweetness and light between them because while their causes meshed, their priorities didn’t always do the same. The Agitators now playing at Upstream Theater is an examination of their near-lifelong connection, allowing both of them time to make their points. Perhaps a bit too much time, however, because much of the play seems rather like a lecture. This is is certainly not to say it isn’t mostly well-done, disturbingly timely, and certainly worth a couple of hours of your time.

Douglass (J. Samuel Davis) is close to Anthony’s (Erin Kelley) father, an outspoken abolitionist, and a Quaker. Because of her religion, she tells Douglass early on, even if she could vote, she wouldn’t because Quakers are supposed to be apolitical. Later, she would leave the Society of Friends and change her mind about voting, but when we meet her, the women’s rights question is her priority, along with abolition. Act I begins at the Anthony residence and covers 1849-1869. Act II picks up in 1870 and takes us through 1895.

Playwright Mat Smart has a tough job here: The time
period covered is so long that even though projections help us with what year
it is and where we are, we still get the impression that these two spend a
great deal of time together expressing their views on civil rights. The fact
is, often they would go years without seeing each other, sometimes because they
were busy, other times, because they were angry.

Their longest disagreement was about Douglass’ support
of the 15th Amendments to the Constitution which proposed enfranchisement
of black men but not any women. Unsurprisingly, Anthony takes umbrage at his
support of what she considers a half-measure. She is also angry that Douglass
is accepting financial support from a man she considers a misogynist. This
quarrel leads to their longest period of non-communication.

 He spoke at her
conferences and she appeared at his. Both of them were among the best known
figures of their time. Anthony was the only leader in the 19th
century women’s movement culminating in the meeting in Seneca Falls, NY in
1848. And one should not think that Douglass didn’t support Anthony fully in
her drive for equality; rather, he thought it was too soon and would come when
the time was right. Of course, women got the vote in 1920, long after these
icons were gone.

Photo by ProPhotoSTLAs for any sense of a love story, the affection between the two is palpable, but Douglass was happily married to his wife, Anna (a free black woman who helped him attain his freedom) and after she died, a much younger woman. He also was attractive to women and there is speculation that he had others, but one of them was NOT Susan B. Anthony.

They both wrote books—he a four-volume autobiography; she, in collaboration with other leaders of the movement, a multi-volume treatise on her own beliefs and the causes the women held dear. One good joke is that neither reads the other’s work.

There are more moments of humor that leaven the
proceedings, my favorite being Douglass explaining baseball to Anthony at his
son’s game. It is amusing, until due to a racist incident, it isn’t. They tell
each other bad jokes and engage in teasing banter. At one point, when he is 76
years old, Anthony gives Douglas a pair of ice skates. He is, of course,
nonplussed. But she was a great believer in physical exercise and the moment
demonstrates both their similarities and their differences.

The atmosphere of the play is enhanced by the musical  compositions of and performance by Syrhea
Conaway, a well-known and versatile St. Louis artist. When we first see
Douglass, he is carrying a violin. At several points in the show, he appears to
play his instrument in duets with her that can run the gamut from ethereal to
anger. She uses percussion to round out the sound, and it works beautifully.
The set itself is simple—beams, planks and boxes which get shifted around
often—perhaps rather too often, as it can become distracting. There is a
connection to the story, however, when Anthony tells a story involving a suitor
who wooed her with a warmed plank.

Stage Manager Patrick Huber is responsible for the
lights, as well is the set, and they provide a proper atmosphere, if too dark
at times. Michele Friedman Siler’s costumes are historically accurate except
for the anachronistic zippers on Anthony’s boots. Lisa Tejero directs, assisted
by Patience Davis. They keep things moving to the extent that it is possible
when there are so very many words for the actors to say, but despite their
efforts, the production still seems static some of the time. The fact that it’s
a running trope that Anthony cannot sit down is, I assume, supposed to give us
the illusion of motion.

If there are better actors than Kelley and Davis to
play these parts, I don’t know who they are. There were a few stumbles at the
beginning, but when the two hit their stride, all was well from a performance
standpoint. I believed them and more important, I think THEY believed them too.

The last public statement Douglass made was at Seneca Falls saying “When I ran away from slavery, it was for myself; when I advocated emancipation, it was for my people, but when I took up for the rights of women, self was out of the question, and I found a little nobility in the act.”

He and Anthony are buried in the same cemetery in Rochester, NY, her home town. Together in death, as in life, one wonders what they might have to say about racism and misogyny in 2019.

“The Agitators” is at Upstream Theater through Oct. 13 at the Kranzberg Arts Center. You may contact upstreamtheater.org

By Andrea Braun
Contributing Writer
“King Charles III” by Mike Bartlett is set in the indeterminate future when Elizabeth, Queen of England, has died and Charles (Colin Nichols) is now, at last, King.
We meet him as he addresses the audience and is soon joined by Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall (Donna Postel); Prince William, Duke of Cambridge (Michael Bouchard); Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge (Lexie Baker); and Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex (Jeremy Goldmeier) immediately following the Queen’s funeral.
Harry begs off the rest of the ceremonies, as we might expect from what we know of pre-Meghan Harry; the rest remain to talk. And exactly here is where the play went off the rails for me, and it did not manage to get back on for nearly three hours.

I realize information that the audience may not know must be conveyed through the characters, but Catherine, of all people, cannot possibly be ignorant enough of protocol to think that Charles isn’t King until his coronation three months hence. “The Queen is dead. Long live the King,” etc. Nevertheless, Camilla goes into lecture mode and Catherine (aka Kate) just listens, putting in a word here and there.
There’s an easy fix for that as the action quickly shifts to a club where Harry’s mates introduce him to Jessica Edwards (Britteny Henry), a Republican, who might well NOT know how succession works.
Back to the castle. Once Camilla gets her tutorial out of the way, the family exits and Charles has his first meeting with Prime Minister Kristin Evans (Andra Harkins), and we quickly learn they are at odds over a bill putting some restrictions on freedom of the press that Parliament has passed and now only requires the King’s signature to take effect.
The Queen would have done her duty and signed. But Charles, determined to be his own man, believes no restrictions should be placed on the media. Now, is this about the issue or the true belief of man himself? PM Evans spends most of her time in a frustrated huff, demonstrating that by her decidedly perfunctory curtsies, and it is difficult to blame her, even if one agrees with Charles.
This contretemps between Charles and his government, the ones whose power, unlike his, is not mainly symbolic, furnishes the major plot of the story. Subplots include Charles’s own self-doubt, and his relationship with his wife.
Harry and Jess have a rocky road. They have fallen in love “just like Romeo and Juliet” —that is, quickly and irresponsibly, but their story creates another annoyance: She keeps saying that she’s breaking up with him, but then she’s baaack, every time!
There is the balancing act performed by MP Margaret Stevens (Patience Davis), Leader of the Opposition, to placate both the King and the PM, and the question of who should have the throne, as it has long been known that many subjects prefer William to Charles.
It doesn’t help that Diana, Princess of Wales (Hannah Pauluhn) drifts through a couple of times, telling both her husband and son individually that each will be “the greatest King England ever had.”
The ghost is only one of the many Shakespearian references and allusions sprinkled throughout its five acts. A few more of these include casting Kate as a Lady Macbeth and William her reluctant Lord. It has been called “a future history play,” as it is styled in much the same way as Shakespeare’s own. Blank verse is employed, with touches of prose and a soupcon of iambic pentameter. The King seems weak (“Henry VI,” “Hamlet”), given to the grand gesture when it is not in his best interests (“King Lear”).
Prince Harry is beset with self-doubt (Prince Hal) and he calls himself a “ginger joke.” Even a kabob seller reinforces the younger prince’s doubts representing the common people, worried about the future of Britain; and that when so much of it has been taken away, it really isn’t the country they recognize any more.
Of course, the difference between this play and Shakespeare’s is that we don’t know how this one will come out, so that suspense adds some interest. There is good work from several of the actors, but Nichols could be stronger. In attempting to capitalize on Charles’ perceived weakness, he becomes almost devoid of personality, and if that is a directorial choice, I don’t think it works. Nichols’ is, at least until the last act, a one-note performance. There are hints of “accents” that make one long for a dialect coach.
Donna Northcott is a talented veteran director, and there are certain aspects she handles well, especially moving the actors around the stage and scene changes that are gracefully choreographed.
The play does develop momentum in the last half hour or so, but then someone fluffs (another) line, and takes us right out of the scene. And there were just too many of those mistakes. Presumably they will be corrected during the run.
Robin Weatherall’s sound design is fun and appropriate—varying between classical selections to represent the older royals and rock and roll for the younger. Costumes aren’t always flattering, but they are interesting, particularly Harkins’, Henry’s, and Baker’s. But Davis’s character only gets one brown suit? S.H. Boygan’s set is simple with basic elements added and shifted as needed. He seems to have done a lot with a little.
Britteny Henry and Dustin AllisonOverall, I’d choose James Reiss (Dustin Allison), Press Adviser, as best in show. It’s not that he doesn’t make mistakes like nearly everyone else, but he has many balls in the air and handles them all with a sort of jittery style, and he’s funny. There is more humor in the text than is noticeable in performance.
Davis is excellent and Harkins, is properly strong in her portrayal of where the real power lies. The actors who play multiple parts—the aforementioned Pauluhn is very good as a TV producer, Michael B. Perkins and William Pendergast are fine in all their roles.
The only exception here is Jeff Lovell, who as the Speaker of the House and the Archbishop of Canterbury, needs to back off a bit, lest he remind us even more of Peter Cook in “The Princess Bride” than he already does..
I am aware of the awards and nominations “King Charles III” has received since its first mounting in 2014, but this production by St. Louis Shakespeare doesn’t make it clear why it has been so honored.
“King Charles III” opened Aug. 17 with weekend performances, and continues next week with a Thursday performance Aug. 23 at 7:30 p.m. Evenings are at 8 p.m. Aug. 24 and 25, and Sunday matinee at 2 p.m. Aug. 26 at the Ivory Theatre, 7620 Michigan Ave. Tickets are available through brownpapertickets.com.

Photos by Ron James