The past is never really behind us as we work to live up to the ideals of the American experiment.
Boots on the Ground Theater is putting up a new production of “The Agitators,” about the lifelong friendship between Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony at Riverhead’s Vail-Leavitt Music Hall, opening this Friday, April 8, and the organizers are working to bring a sense of immediacy and humanity to a friendship that is as relevant today as it was in the 19th Century.
“This show has the urgency of right now,” says Mark Heidemann, who is making his directorial debut in this production, which stars Justin Harris as Frederick Douglass, Bonnie Grice as Susan B. Anthony and Eugene Hamilton as Frederick Douglass’s creative spirit. “So much of what is discussed in the play, you could change a couple words and it is 2022.”
“I think people will come away excited by it,” he added. “These are two legendary figures, and it really humanizes them. It’s a visceral experience when you’re in the theater.”
The play, which runs for five shows only on Fridays, Saturdays & Sundays from April 8 through April 16, was written by Mat Smart and premiered at the Geva Theatre Center in Rochester in 2017.
“I had no idea that Frederick Douglass even knew Susan B. Anthony, let alone that they were lifelong friends,” said Ms. Grice, the founder of Boots on the Ground Theater, who was doing research to find a new play last year when she stumbled upon this script. “They loved each other, and that lasted their whole lives.”
While Mr. Douglass advocated for the end of slavery and the right to vote for African Americans (securing just the right to vote for African American men in 1870), Ms. Anthony’s did not live to see the result of her lifelong agitation for women’s votes, which was allowed nationwide in 1920.
“Bonnie and Justin really embraced their characters, and made the scary choice to humanize these characters and show them with their warts,” said Mr. Heidemann. “The more you can make them real, the more relatable they become, and you can see a little bit of yourselves in them. I’m hoping people will see this and say ‘maybe it’s not ok to sit on the side and let other people work things out. Maybe I need to be involved too.’”
“I have loved Susan B. Anthony since my early days reading Ms. magazine,” said Ms. Grice. “She is someone people think is shrill, that all she did was scream and yell about women’s rights. But how do I bring out her lovability, her human-ness, her femininity? People loved her. She fought and fought and didn’t even get what she was after until after she died.”
Mr. Harris, who has been working with numerous East End theater companies as an actor and director, also approached this role as a labor of love.
“Justin really captured Frederick Douglass. He’s amazing to watch on stage,” said Mr. Heidemann. He’s really taken this as a personal role and it shows. We’re thrilled to have him.”
This show will be the first production to light up the stage at the Vail-Leavitt Music Hall since the pandemic, and the intimate theater, built as an homage to Ford’s Theater in Washington, DC in 1881 after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, is an apropos space for this piece of theater.
“It’s a truly remarkable space,” said Ms. Grice. “Every once in a while, I pause on stage and look down and think ‘Who else has been on this stage since 1881 — Thomas Edison, Will Rogers.’ In 1881, Susan and Frederick were both still alive and kicking and agitating.”
The Vail-Leavitt Music Hall is at 18 Peconic Avenue in Riverhead. Tickets to “The Agitators” are $25, and the show runs April 8 through 16. Shows are Fridays at 7 p.m. Saturdays at 5 p.m. Sunday, April 10 at 3 p.m. You can purchase tickets online here.