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Lively and Galyean bring out the best in each other in ‘The Agitators’


Only three more performances of The Agitators remain. If you haven’t seen it, there’s still time to take in this remarkable show. It’s being performed tonight, tomorrow night and Sunday afternoon in the Foulds Theatre at the Alliance for the Arts.

Center stage in this production is superb acting by two of Southwest Florida’s mega-talents, Derek Lively and Dena Galyean. While other productions of The Agitators sometimes include a handful of peripheral actors, Theatre Conspiracy Producing Artistic Director Bill Taylor restricted his cast to just Lively and Galyean. It’s a wise choice. The presence of anyone else on stage would have just served to dilute the static electricity that sparked and arced all night between these two powerful high-energy thespians.

Frederick Douglass was a runaway slave who rose to prominence as a dynamic activist for passage of the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Finally ratified in 1870, the 15th Amendment granted African American men the right to vote by declaring that the “right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

Read that again.

Notice that the Amendment’s ambit does not extend to sex. And the omission of that one word led to an intellectual, emotional and spiritual rift between Douglass and Susan B. Anthony, who were close friends until Douglass made the political calculation that the country lacked the stomach for universal suffrage in the decade and a half following the end of the Civil War. He felt that in order to secure the right to vote for African Americans, he had to jettison women’s suffrage.

Anthony took Douglass’ pragmatism as a betrayal. It cost him her admiration and friendship for a time. The loss was painful. But he made amends after ratification of the 15th Amendment by vigorously supporting the movement Anthony spearheaded for extending the right to vote to women.

Interestingly, playwright Mat Smart (who portrays the relationships that evolved between Douglass and Anthony through a series of 11 vignettes separated by a 15-minute intermission) includes a scene later in the play in which Susan Anthony makes a similar concession to win the support of Southern women for the 19th Amendment, much to Douglass’ vexation.

Although united in their fervent desire to build an all-inclusive America notwithstanding a flawed and restrictive Constitutional framework, Douglas and Anthony were possessed of polar opposite temperaments and personalities. He was prone to great emotion, displaying deep love, mercurial anger and soul-shattering grief. Anthony was self-contained and emotionally restrained, bordering on near Spartan stoicism as evidenced by the fact that she rarely sat even after she suffered frostbite in both feet lobbying in upstate New York in January for universal suffrage.

Don’t mistake “self-contained” or “stoic” for “resigned” or “passive.” There’s a scene early on that depicts just how forceful, candid and acerbic she could be. She chastises Douglas for reading the paper with his feet up while his wife makes dinner, clears and then washes the dishes, all while tending to the children. It’s a sentiment women echo even today.

Lively and Galyean were logical choices to play these roles. They’re two of Southwest Florida’s best actors. But they’re also uniquely suited to roles such as these. Lively sizzled as Walter Lee Younger in Theatre Conspiracy at the Alliance’s production of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. Galyean dominated as Nora Helmer in Theatre Conspiracy’s production of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. In some respects, Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony can be viewed as extensions and refinements of their previous roles.

But if you missed one or both of those shows don’t fret. The tension, conflict and confrontation that Lively and Galyean bring to the boards will have you leaning forward and sitting on the edge of your seats.

It would be a dereliction of duty not to mention the other aspect implicit in The Agitators. Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony respected and admired one another for the vast majority of their nearly 50-year relationship. They were close friends during most of this time. But they also shared a love for one another. While it was never romantic, there’s a scene in which Frederick asks Susan (who never married and never had children) if she’d ever known love. Her answer/non-answer leaves the unstated implication that she’d always loved him.

Whether that’s factual or poetic is beside the point. What’s important is that these two actors don’t just excel during volatile, emotionally-charged scenes. They have that rarified talent to leave an audience thunderstruck and speechless or reduce it to tears.

Go see this show if you’re a fan of exceptional acting. Go see this show if you like smart sets, imaginative lighting and sound design or great period costumes. Go see this show if you are a history geek. And especially go see this show if subjects such as voting rights, women’s rights and equality are important to you. You will leave with a better appreciation for the struggle of all those who came before us. You’ll leave with the sobering realization that, unfortunately, we are still fighting many of the battles that Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony waged more than a century ago.

Just as Douglass and Anthony did during their time together, Derek Lively and Dena Galyean bring out the best in each other. They may very well bring out the best in you too through their performances in The Agitators.

January 25, 2019.



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