Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: St. Louis

The Agitators
Upstream Theater
Review by Richard T. Green

Also see Richard's reviews of Cry-Baby and Man of La Mancha

Erin Kelley and Jerome Samuel Davis
Photo by ProPhotoSTL
If you need any reminder of the persistence needed to protect and expand freedom, liberty and equality, this is the show for you. And even if those principles are already steeped in your conscience, the delightful, understated performances in The Agitators are still a lot of fun to watch, as presented by Upstream Theater at the Kranzberg Arts Center.

Lisa Tejero directs Mat Smart's two hour story, which debuted in 2017, of the little-known friendship between Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony. The Agitators follows them through the exceedingly turbulent years between 1849 and 1895. It's a tidy, warm and meticulous production with live music by Syrhea Conaway just off-stage, and some possibly superfluous stage dressing between scenes, in the movement of various soapboxes and crates. That additional movement helps transport us from upstate New York to Boston to New York City and Washington, D.C., before, during, and after the Civil War.

One of those oblong boxes will also transport us psychologically. It becomes a great metaphor for idealists everywhere when Erin Kelley (heartwarming and unstoppable as the suffragette) can no longer carry the weight of her own tracts and books and philosophies stuffed inside this particular crate. She's been warring with her friend, the abolitionist Frederick Douglass (the majestic Jerome Samuel Davis), over the 15th Amendment, which did not include women in the right to vote. Ratified after much debate in 1870, it granted the franchise to ex-slaves and their descendants, a success for Douglass, but one that left Anthony and her followers feeling shut out. And yet, when the weight of her own idealism becomes too much for her, Douglass finally takes up her burden himself, with much effort. It's a great metaphor for a great friendship.

The writing is just as sharp, with an ending that seems effortlessly transcendent. More than the agitation they caused in the affliction of the comfortable, it is a story of the affliction they both endured: exhorting and upbraiding, to focus the nation's attention on longstanding inequities, in spite of the loss of loved ones, and pepper gas, and vicious arson, and the occasional gunfire.

Of course we learn a lot about the two very disparate figures, too—how Douglass's own slave mother, sold and moved away, walked 12 miles a night to tuck him in as a child and then stole back to her own plantation as soon as he was asleep. Mr. Davis's performance is one of quiet conviction and deep philosophical wondering, even as Douglass becomes old and perhaps a grand scarecrow near the end. We creep more subtly into the visionary mind of Ms. Anthony, challenged by Douglass about her loveless life and the demands of her own sense of commitment. It is a rare gift to be so in love with a pure ideal. Both actors swing together in furious orbits, like dual stars: impossibly single and together, and glowing.

The Agitators runs through October 13, 2019, at Upstream Theater, Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 North Grand (at Olive Street), St. Louis MO. For tickets and information visit

The Cast:
Susan B. Anthony: Erin Kelley*
Frederick Douglass: Jerome Samuel Davis
Music composed and performed by: Syrhea Conaway

Artistic Staff:
Director: Lisa Tejero
Scenic Designer: Patrick Huber
Costume Design: Michele Friedman Siler
Lighting Design: Patrick Huber
Sound Design: Kareem Deanes
Prop Design: Jenny Smith
Production Manager: Kate Metz
Production Stage Manager: Patrick Siler*
Graphic Art: Sleepy Kitty
Wardrobe: Laila Alvarado
Wig Build: The Wig Associates
Wig Maintenance: Aaliyah Burton, Charlotte Seidensticker
Assistant Director: Patience Davis
Assistant Stage Manager: Clare Fairbanks**
Dramaturg: Madison Finley
Technical Director: Joseph M. Novak
Board Operator: Dustin Petrillo
Master Electrician: Tony Anselmo
Production Engineer: Kevin Bowman
House Manager and Box Office: Monica Roscoe
Production Photographer: Peter Wochniak
Publicity and Marketing: Marla Stoker Ballenger
Social Media: Kathy Tate, Paige Brubeck

* Denotes Member, Actors Equity Association

** Denotes Membership Candidate, Actors Equity Association