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Yesterday and today: ‘The Agitators’ at freeFall

Bill DeYoung

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L. James and Jennifer Christa Palmer in "The Agitators" at freeFall Theatre. "Frederick Douglass was actually a very good friend of Susan B. Anthony’s father," Palmer explains. "The first scene is when they first meet, in 1849 at the Anthony farm. He had been bringing his family there for visits, that sort of thing, but she hadn’t had the opportunity to meet him, but had heard about him. Obviously his fame had blown up, if you will, by that point." Photo: Dalton Hamilton Lighting Design.

One scene in The Agitators, in particular, telegraphs the throughline that exists between the mid 19th century and today.

Onstage at freeFall Theatre until Feb. 26, it’s a play about things worth fighting for – as noble and true now as they were then – and on one occasion its protagonists, social reform leaders Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony, have their schedule books out, pencils in hand, and are attempting to find a date and time to meet.

Monday the 6th at noon? Wednesday the 8th at 5? Next Tuesday? A week from Sunday? April something?

Nothing works. In every case, one or both of them will be on a train, or out of the area, or giving a lecture somewhere.

The Agitators depicts the push-and-pull 50-year friendship of Douglass, the former slave who vigorously and eloquently fought for the abolition of slavery, and women’s suffrage leader Anthony.

Jennifer Christa Palmer stars as the latter. “I look at their pursuits, in terms of social change, as their professions,” the actress says. “She was a lecturer who had a really crazy schedule that she kept up with, because she was getting the word out: ‘This is how we’re going to change the world.’ By letting people hear these speeches and letting them realize how important it is for women to get the vote.”

Far more than a straight-from-the-book history lesson, The Agitators injects the historical facts with personal post-it notes – the two bicker and argue, watch a baseball game and even make each other laugh at times. “At the end of the day, it humanizes them,” believes L. James, the actor playing Douglass. “They were human. And you see in the story how their ideals came up against each other, and worked together.”

That these two influential people existed in the same time period isn’t news. But the fact that they were friends and colleagues, and even collaborators at times, that’s in the historical record too – if you look deep enough.

“Take what you learn in school – you only get a nice, quick snippet of them,” James says. “This project loaned the lens to me to look at it further. Someone said to me the other night, ‘With history, you never think of these people walking the earth, and actually running into each other.’ Every time you hear about somebody that was great, it’s always their storyline, and nobody else exists. Because you’re putting them in a streamline.

“But when you open that scope with two streamlines together, it’s different and it’s very universal. With this story, you get a different kind of friendship – a different kind of love story – between the two.”

When she first read Mat Smart’s script, Palmer relates, “I was blown away by A, the fact that they were friends and B, how good the script was. Obviously we have the cursory knowledge from grade school, who they were, but we didn’t have anything to sink our teeth into and dig into, to get our mitts on. So it was really an eye-opening experience.”

Much of the dialogue in The Agitators was taken from actual speeches, articles, books and correspondence. Douglass talks about his wife and children, his life before he escaped from slavery, and his unswaying commitment to the cause of equality for Black Americans. Even – or maybe especially – in the years following the Emancipation Proclamation, and the passage of the 15th Amendment, giving African American men the right to vote. The struggle was very real.

Anthony talks about the uphill battle she and fellow agitator Elizabeth Cady Stanton are fighting to gain similar rights for women.

No recordings exist of either historical figure speaking, which meant the actors had to dig deep into their characters to find their voices.

“She’s still finding her voice in the first scene,” offers Palmer, “so there’s … not a girlish quality, but somebody who’s still trying on how they want to be in the world – how do I want to present myself? And on the life’s journey that she goes on, as she gets more experienced, there’s a heaviness to her that I felt I needed to express vocally. Her voice gets heavier and deeper as it goes on. And the sense of conviction that she had, I really wanted to honor that.

“And when they’re arguing, each trying to prove their point, I use a lower timbre so that I know that I’m being heard.”

To lock in the proper gravitas, James listened to the stentorian speaking voice of actor Cedric Mays, who played Douglas in the National Park Service’s popular Agitators podcast. “And then I thought of my own stepfather, who was a preacher. And all the preachers that I knew as a kid. They were orators. And thinking about slaves as orators – it was about church.”

Palmer has appeared numerous times on the freeFall stage, but The Agitators marks James’ local debut. A graduate of Sarasota’s FSU/Asolo Conservatory for Actor Training, he’ll be back in that city in March, starring in the one-man show Backwards Forwards and Back, by Jacqueline Goldfinger, at Urbanite Theatre.

James, who served in the US Army from 2001 to 2005, found something to relate to in this script, too. “The play is about the struggle of having PTSD, and with virtual rehab,” he explains, “which has been newly introduced to soldiers who were pretty much from my time, with the Iraq War, and Afghanistan.”

Several friends of his have been dealing with severe PTSD, he reports. “So the play speaks to me on a personal level. Of putting faces behind it.”

Info and tickets for The Agitators: Click here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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