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

Love at the River’s Edge , the latest new work from Shakespeare Festival St. Louis’ internationally recognized Shakespeare in the Streets initiative, will open on Friday, September 13, 2019. The world premiere play is based on Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” and is the culmination of a year’s work in Calhoun County, Illinois and north St. Louis County, Missouri. It is part of Shakespeare Festival’s ongoing work to bridge the urban-rural divide and elevate the voices of Midwest artists and residents. Love at the River’s Edge opens with one of Shakespeare’s most famous lines, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” The players are Midwestern families and their journey of love, community and reconciliation will take audience members from Pagedale, Mo. to Calhoun County, Ill., with the mighty Mississippi in a starring role. The performances will begin at 7 p.m. outside the 24:1 Coffee House/Cafe at the intersection of Page and Ferguson.

After Act 1, the cast and audience will journey together by bus and on the Golden Eagle Ferry from north St. Louis County, across the river to Calhoun County. The second act of the production will take place on the riverbank with the Mississippi River as the backdrop. The entire experience including travel will take approximately three hours and 30 minutes. Tickets will be free and open to the public, but reservations are recommended and will open on Aug.15.

“Love at the River’s Edge” is written by acclaimed St. Louis playwright Mariah Richardson , directed by Kathryn Bentley , and shares stories from Normandy, Mo. and Brussels, Ill. The two partner communities and their surrounding counties are the Festival’s first-ever urban/rural Shakespeare in the Streets collaboration. Bentley and Richardson will be joined on the creative team by musicians Syrhea Conaway and Colin McLaughlin who will be composing original music for the production and Kendrick Lawson-Knight (Set Designer), Felia Davenport (Costumes) and Jayson M. Lawshee (Lighting Designer).

The ensemble cast is comprised of professional actors and community members and is led by local students. Included in the cast are Brussels High School graduate Lindsey Watters (Rosalind), Normandy High School student Margaret Mischeaux (Cee Cee), Brussels High School student Ellie Nolte (Phoebe), and Shakespeare Squadron alumnus Daniel Clear (Oliver). Other notable cast: Normandy High School teacher Lisa “Mama Lisa” Gage (Duchess), acclaimed St. Louis jazz singer and actress Anita Jackson (Adam), Shakespeare Festival favorite Eric Dean White (Wittmond), Shakespeare in the Streets veteran Chris Ware (Jackson) and other natives of the St. Louis, Brussels and Normandy community.

Students from Brussels High School and Normandy Schools Brussels High School student and cast member Ellie Nolte has been working on the project for the last year, “What I think is so great about this project is how we’ve been given the chance to work with people from Normandy and bridge the gap between our school and theirs. I personally really enjoy having the opportunity to work with kids my age who come from such a different background and connect with them because of our differences rather than in spite of them. It’s truly amazing how quickly I became close to these people I had never met, never even imagined meeting, and now I’m very glad I did.” “Social division and fragmentation are the most serious challenges facing our generation,” said Executive Producer Tom Ridgely in a statement. “And nowhere is the divide as wide as it often feels between our urban and our rural communities. It’s a rift Shakespeare knew intimately – he spent his entire adult life moving between the country and the city. Shakespeare in the Streets has always been about breaking down the barriers that separate us in St. Louis, and I can’t think of a more powerful way to do that than by breaking bread and sharing the stories of our good neighbors in Normandy and Brussels.” Richardson, Bentley and the SITS creative team have been working in Calhoun County and north St. Louis County since early 2018: building relationships, leading conversations and collaborating with residents to create the new play. Organizational partners include Beyond Housing, Brussels High School and the Normandy Schools Collaborative. “We are simply thrilled to be a part of this innovative, one of a kind event that brings Shakespeare in the Streets to the 24:1 footprint,” said Chris Krehmeyer, President and CEO of Beyond Housing. “Linking our community with the folks from Brussels, Ill., is a great representation of how our region can come together.” 24:1 is a nationally-recognized community development effort created by Beyond Housing toaddress the fundamental challenges within the 24 municipalities in the Normandy school district in North St. Louis County.

Page and Ferguson intersection, where the play will be performed. Shakespeare in the Streets is underwritten by PNC Arts Alive with generous support from the Whitaker Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts: Creativity Connects, the Strive Fund, and Moneta Group. Leadership support for all of Shakespeare Festival St. Louis’ new work initiatives comes from Karen and Mont Levy. It is in partnership with Beyond Housing, the Normandy Schools Collaborative and Brussels High School. Shakespeare in the Streets ( www.sfstl.com/streets ) is an internationally-recognized program that celebrates local stories and takes high-quality professional arts directly to those who may not otherwise experience it. A Festival playwright, designer, and director spend a year conducting conversations and research in a community. The playwright draws directly from the stories shared to write an original play, inspired by the neighborhood, and based on the work of Shakespeare. With Festival resources, the community then comes together to perform the new play in a weekend-long outdoor celebration. About Shakespeare Festival St. Louis Shakespeare Festival St. Louis presents Shakespeare and works inspired by his legacy of storytelling. Since 2001, the festival has grown from producing a single production of Shakespeare in the Park to a year-round season of impactful theater in exciting and accessible venues throughout the St. Louis community. The festival’s artistic and education programs reached over 50,000 patrons and students during the 2018 season and have reached over one million since 2001. In 2019, the Festival received a “What’s Right with the Region” award from Focus St. Louis. Leadership support for Shakespeare Festival St. Louis’ 2019 season is provided by the Whitaker Foundation. The festival is also funded in part by the National Endowment for the Arts, the Missouri Arts Council, the Regional Arts Commission, and the Arts & Education Council of Greater St. Louis. For more information, please visit www.sfstl.com, or call 314-531- 9800. Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/shakesfestSTL Twitter: @shakesfestSTL Instagram: ShakesfestSTL

The Golden Eagle Ferry and the Brussels, Ill. river banks.Artistic Team Bios Mariah L. Richardson (Playwright) A native of St. Louis, Missouri, Richardson received her BA in Communications from the University of New Mexico and an MFA from Smith College in Playwriting. Recipient of the Regional Arts commission $20,000 Artist Fellowship 2016, Richardson was named to the Confluence Regional Writers Project with Shakespeare Festival St. Louis for 2019. In 2018 she was their playwright fellow and helped rewrite Shakespeare in the Streets’ performance of Blow Winds . Mariah is the author of the plays: all that… , Sistahs Indeed!, Delilah’s Wish , ¡Soy Yo! , Idris Elba is James Bond, and Chasing the White Rabbit . Her last play, in partnership with Jazz St. Louis and commissioned by A Call to Conscience Theatre for Social Change, Next to Normal: The Thelonius Monk Story , premiered to sold-out crowds.Kathryn Bentley (Director) is an Associate Professor of Theater Performance at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville where she is the Artistic Director of SIUE’s Black Theatre Workshop as well as the Director of the Black Studies Program. Some of her directing credits include Gem of the Ocean, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, The Colored Museum , Since Africa , Venus, Only Just a Minute , and Intimate Apparel . Kathryn is the Artistic Director of Bread and Roses Missouri. She commits herself to community-engaged arts collaborations, striving to create compassionate artistic experiences, using theater to lift social consciousness.

Mariah RichardsonKathryn Bentley