By Cindy Stovall
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Plus A Full Audio Interview with
Jennifer Christa Palmer & Matthew McGee
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Through February 26
freeFall Theatre, St Pete
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NEA/Pinellas Recovers Grant Update
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One of the greatest friendships in American history might not be common knowledge to many, but its impact has affected us all in significant ways. Frederick Douglass, enslaved until the age of 20, became one of the most famous abolition activists and orators for equality of the 19th century. Susan B. Anthony is the name most associated with the decades-long fight for women’s right to vote. She also was a vocal abolitionist – and Douglass, a staunch supporter of women’s suffrage.
Individually and together, they are key to the passing of three monumental Constitutional Amendments (often a source of their biggest disagreements) – the 13th, 15th and 19th. Your history assignment is to look them up. It’s very good practice.
Two Rochester NY residents, a Black man and an unmarried white woman, forged one of the most unlikely, dangerous, yet intimate and consequential relationships in American history. This is the premise of freeFall Theatre’s current production of The Agitators, now running through February 26.
The play, written by the brilliant Mat Smart in 2017, skillfully peels back the layers of a relationship that spanned almost 50 years (1849-1895) – the personal, the political, the contentious, the affectionate, the historic – all seamlessly intertwined in two acts and in under two hours.
For me, the time flew by – always my first measure of how much I enjoyed a stage production. This is not some predictable history reenactment. It’s the movingly told story of a friendship that happened to be between two icons of history – agitators of their time – to the country, and at times, each other.
It is wonderful to learn the history, which you do – but it comes alive because the dialogue makes you feel. Their stories keep you invested.
The leads, portrayed by Equity actors L. James (in his freeFall Debut) and Jennifer Christa Palmer (award-winning freeFall alum), make you believe they are indeed Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony – probably the highest compliment I can give any performance based on actual people. Their interactions are perfectly timed, heartfelt, often funny. In a word, real. James’s booming deep voice and Palmer’s portrayal of Anthony’s pragmatism and doggedly firm resolve provide the foundation upon which the story is built.
That reality is superbly shaped in all phases – the costume design by David Covach, expertly replicates the dress of the period, and the details of the personal style of the principals was clearly well reasearched. The wigs by Loryn Pretorious, especially that of Frederick Douglass, are amazingly authentic.
The set design by Hansen Scenic works perfectly and interchangeably in the space as a Rochester home, NYC hotel, home field ballpark and Underground Railroad stop. Scenes are often supported by video seen through a central window designed by Artistic Director, Eric Davis – an innovator of the craft. The insight and perception of guest director, Kristin Clippard is nothing short of inspired.
Altogether, It just plain works, for any theater lover.
If you thought the subject wouldn’t interest you, think again.
It is always fascinating, sometimes disturbing how timeless certain conflicts through history can be – how the relevancy in current days can make you question how far we’ve really come.
Director Clippard says it best. “We can take inspiration in their story. Despite being battered and bruised, flawed and imperfect in their fight – they persisted. No matter where we sit on the political spectrum, we can all agree that working towards a better future is part of the American Legacy.
“May Frederick and Susan inspire us to ask – What can I do to make change today?”
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I had the pleasure of recording an audio interview with Jennifer Christa Palmer, aka Susan B. Anthony, and the always wonderful Matthew McGee, freeFall’s director of community outreach. Please enjoy our full conversation here for added insights.
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freeFall Theatre is a recipient of the Pinellas Recovers Grant,
provided by Creative Pinellas through a grant from the
National Endowment of the Arts American Rescue Plan.