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Review: Riverside Theatre's production of 'The Agitators' is 'theater at its best'

Susan B. Anthony (Jessica Link) and Frederick Douglass (Curtis M. Jackson) take a much needed breather from their tirele
Susan B. Anthony (Jessica Link) and Frederick Douglass (Curtis M. Jackson) take a much needed breather from their tireless efforts to secure voting rights in “The Agitators.” The drama, full of heart and humor, continues through Feb. 16 at Riverside Theatre in Iowa City. (Rob Merritt)

IOWA CITY — Mat Smart’s brilliant play, “The Agitators,” stirs up the past, flinging it squarely into the present.

And that’s too bad, because it just points out that the issues Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass faced in the 1800s are still present.

In the skilled, deft hands of Riverside Theatre’s artistic staff, cast and crew, this is as close as you’re likely to come to experiencing a perfect piece of theater. It opened to an immediate standing ovation Friday (1/24) and continues through Feb. 16 on the Iowa City stage.

The intimate venue is the ideal place to see this intimate show. S. Benjamin Farrar’s stage design speaks volumes in its simplicity. Most of the action takes place on a circular turntable that suggests locations with the addition of a door, some chairs, a trunk and two stools. It is operated in full view of the audience, with the clanking of chains and wheels conjuring up the sounds from the slave ships that brought Douglass’ family to these shores.

Nobody choreographs a scene change like director Chris Okiishi. His scene changes don’t bring the action to a grinding halt while stagehands scurry about in the dark, moving scenery and props. His are works of art filled with visceral music, movement and dance.

He brings that same high level of artistry to his inaugural directing role at the professional theater where every show makes you think and grow.

Actors Jessica Link and Curtis M. Jackson are superb. Each one embodies these larger-than-life history-makers with humanity, fire and grace.

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Their friendship begins in the 1840s when they’re young and full of the grit and determination needed first as abolitionists, then as suffragists to secure voting rights for blacks and women.

When Anthony asks what she can do to help in his quest to end slavery, he replies: “Use your words as weapons for moral change.”

Even when their individual focuses later shift and their verbal sparring accelerates, they remain loyal friends. As Link pointed out after the show, part of the beauty comes in the way their arguments change as they grow through their lives, victories and losses. They soften in their responses, seeking compromises, apologizing when needed and embracing each other’s lives with respect.

Their relationship is impeccably researched and presented as lessons in the history the whitewashed schoolbooks of my youth all but ignored.

After audiences hear the agitating heartbeat, panting, chains and discordant violin that open the show, Douglass’ words drive home the whole point of the play: “We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and the future.”

Shortly thereafter, more of his words zing right to the present: “I am welcomed here, but there is no place in America where I am safe.” And so he is working to change that. But his intellect and philosophies also need to be jarred along the way, and that’s where Anthony steps in.

Responding to the common queries about why she’s yet unmarried, she replies that once a woman is married, she has no rights. The wife, in essence, becomes her husband’s property. Douglass is no better. When he puts up his feet to rest, Anthony points out that his wife baked 20 loaves of bread that day for the people they would move through the Underground Railroad that night. How many did he bake? And did he ever change his children’s diapers or clothing?

For every point one of them makes, the other has a counterpoint.

Slavery stole the first 20 years of his life. He doesn’t even know his birthday. He saw his mother four or five times in his life, after she toiled as a slave from sunup to sundown, then walked 12 miles to sing him to sleep and walked the same 12 miles back to her home. He has spent his life trying to remember that song.

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Jackson, an actor based in Chicago, brings boiling animation to Douglass and his fight. Link, from Cedar Rapids, creates a calm surface with angst roiling inside. And always, they embody the soul-crushing tragedies that befall their characters.

The show has delightful moments of humor, as well, especially when they infuriate each other by quoting each other in the heat of their discourse. Their conversation during a baseball game is especially fun and poignant as they loft their own snarky pitches at each other.

Near the end, however, their words show us just how far we’ve yet to go, as Douglass reminds Anthony: “Now is always the right time to stand up to injustices.”

Those 19th century words addressing 19th century problems are still at play in the 21st century. The audience responded with something akin to an amen chorus at church.

“The Agitators” is theater at its best. Teaching us, challenging us, reminding us of where we’ve been, where we are and how far we still have to go.

Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

Get Out!

• What: “The Agitators”

• Where: Riverside Theatre, 213 N. Gilbert St., Iowa City

• When: To Feb. 16; 7:30 p.m. Thursday to Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday

• Tickets: $30 adults, $28 ages 60 and over and 30 and under, $24 military, $10 students, Riverside Box Office, (319) 338-7672 or <URL destination="https://www.riversidetheatre.org/the-agitators">riversidetheatre.org/the-agitators

</URL>• Talkbacks: Feb. 2: University of Iowa English professor Miriam Gilbert and playwright Mat Smart. Feb. 8: UI law professors Adrien Wing, UI Center for Human Rights, and Leslie Schwalm, UI professor of history, gender, women’s & sexuality studies, moderated by professor Lois Cox. Feb. 15: UI professor Anna Barker and cast.

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