By Leah Stacy
Outside the Susan B. Anthony House on Madison Street, there’s a life-size statue created by Pepsy Kettavong depicting Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony having tea. The two were only a few years apart in age and, in true Rochester fashion, of course they knew one another. Through November 12, Geva Theatre Center is staging “The Agitators,” a commissioned work about the 45-year friendship between two American history makers.
Though director Logan Vaughn learned about the duo in history class as a child in Texas, she didn’t know “Fred and Sue” — as she refers to them — were friends. “We grew up hearing about them as individual icons, but even in 1849 this black man and white woman were standing there for each other,” Vaughn says. “If it can happen then, it certainly should be happening now.”
Vaughn, a member of the Directors Lab at Lincoln Center, was one of many directors that playwright Mat Smart interviewed for the project, but the two felt an immediate kinship over their views of the script’s content. Vaughn’s experience in arts as activism, in particular, was a big part of the connection.
“Logan felt the play and this relationship, it was almost like a really spiritual thing,” Smart says. “She had a really good perspective of focusing more on the humanity than on the history.”
The idea for “The Agitators” came to Smart in 2013 when he was in Rochester for the world premiere of his baseball-themed play, “Tinkers to Evers to Chance.” During a tour of the Susan B. Anthony House, he heard the story of Douglass and Anthony’s friendship and observed the “Let’s Have Tea” statue.
“I was inspired that these two great Americans knew each other, so I went to Geva and pitched the idea for a show,” he says. “Everyone here knows they were friends, but there’s very little written” about that friendship.
As a regional theater, Geva regularly hosts world premieres yet doesn’t generally commission them. Landing a 2017 Edgerton Foundation New Play Award (other recipients include “Hamilton” and “Dear Evan Hansen”) enabled more workshop time in New York City, which offered a jumpstart on the design and directing process.
“In my own personal narrative, first being a young black girl and then becoming a young woman, Fred and Sue did things that were significant to me,” Vaughn says. “I wanted to honor them in the most glorious way and inspire the next generation — because it’s not just about what they did, it’s about their intentions. This is still going on. Mat really took that to heart, because he immersed himself in Rochester.”
For Smart, theater is about taking people on a journey — and that journey often begins with his own experiences. Geva dramaturg Jenni Werner assisted Smart with the inundating research, but it was different from every other play he’s written.
“We went to Seneca Falls, talked to historians, and I held their personal letters in my hands,” he said. “Rochester, and Western New York as a whole, in the 19th century was a hotbed of reform and critical thinking. And from Fredrick to Susan to Harriet Tubman, they all knew each other.”
“The Agitators” has undergone several revisions in the past year, but the current version of the show, which opened on October 21, features just two characters (played by Chicago-based actors Cedric Mays and Madeleine Lambert), edgy design, and a run time of just over two hours including intermission.
While the play follows the chronological timeline of the duo’s relationship — including their famous disagreement over the 15th amendment — Smart and Vaughn both wanted to add unexpected elements throughout the show. Smart wrote in scenes at a railroad station and a baseball field, while Vaughn worked with composer Juliette Jones (who’s collaborated with artists ranging from Justin Timberlake to Hans Zimmer) to craft a musical experience that would appeal to audience members of all ages.
“Fred was a self-taught classical violinist, and we wanted to bridge the gap between classic and contemporary,” Vaughn says. “In the script, Smart wrote, ‘a burst of light and maybe Kendrick Lamar’s DNA plays,’ and ultimately, we ended up back there.”
Vaughn encouraged Jones to put her own spin on the song with strings and that became the through line for the production. Songs from Jay-Z, Kanye West, and The Roots are worked in throughout the production as well. Last week, local high school students gave a standing ovation after two separate performances. For Vaughn, that was a huge encouragement.
“I was hoping that they would see themselves in it and connect, especially with the music,” she says. “They’re our next set of agitators.”
The show isn’t slated to run anywhere else after it closes at Geva on November 12, but Smart is optimistic that more audiences will have a chance to see the show.
“I’ve been waking up to write plays for the last 16 years,” he said. “This has been, really, the most exciting project of my life.”