Featured Story

Live theater returns to the Vail-Leavitt with production of ‘The Agitators’

A surprisingly unlikely friendship takes center stage in a production of “The Agitators” set to open at the The Vail-Leavitt Music Hall Friday.

The 2016 docudrama written by Mat Smart examines the true story between abolitionist Frederick Douglass and women’s rights activist Susan B. Anthony and marks the directorial debut for Southold resident Mark Heidemann. The playwright used historical documents to imagine how conversations between the two might have gone.

“These are two characters who are so iconic. They’re oil paintings, they’re stamps, they’re coins,” Mr. Heidemann said ahead of a rehearsal Wednesday night. “This show really humanizes them.”

The decades-long friendship between the freedom fighters began in Rochester in the 1840s. Initially both advocates for suffrage, their relationship became fraught over divisions in their ideology: Douglass supported the 15th Amendment, which offered Black men the right to vote and expressed fear that if they didn’t seize the moment, it may never come. Though some white abolitionists supported the cause, Susan B. Anthony at times argued that white women took precedence over Black men.

Women would ultimately have to wait another 50 years to gain the right to vote in 1920, a moment neither would live to see.

“It’s history, but it really feels fresh. There’s a line where Susan says ‘It’s 1849 — why are we still talking about this?’ And it could be 2022,” Mr. Heidemann said.

During the 100-minute play, Riverhead native Justin Harris as Frederick Douglass and boots on the ground theater founder Bonnie Grice as Susan B. Anthony debate and discuss differing viewpoints on issues that still find relevance today while bringing to life figures we mainly know from history textbooks.

“[Douglass] is a symbol of change and really of possibility,” Mr. Harris said, adding that he feels a sense of great responsibility for depicting a historical icon and has gained a new appreciation for him. “If there is an American dream, he’s part of that. He went from bondage to freedom, made a life for himself in the north and led a revolution.”

The docudrama play examines the friendship between Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony. (Credit: Tom Kochie)

The production also features a twist on Douglass’ character, with Quiogue resident Eugene Hamilton capturing his inner thoughts through the violin, one of Douglass’ passions in life.

“He’s one of my historical heroes, but in your primary education, you’re only getting this much,” Mr. Hamilton said of the little-known fact. “This play works a lot around him being a violinist. That’s his expression.” 

Ms. Grice founded the boots on the ground theater company in 2016 with a mission to bring history to life on stage on the East End.

The upcoming production marks both the Long Island debut of the play and first live theater show at the Vail-Leavitt since the pandemic struck.

The downtown Riverhead theater was opened in 1881 and is patterned after the Ford’s Theatre in Washington D.C. where President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865. It’s one of several similar theaters built to pay tribute to the late president.

Ms. Grice said the venue is a powerful backdrop for the show, as the theater was built during the main characters’ lifetime.

Describing Susan B. Anthony as a lifelong hero, Ms. Grice said she admires how the show bares their flaws and vulnerabilities as people and still holds relevance.

Toward the end of the first scene, Susan B. Anthony asks Frederick Douglass: “Do you believe that this can ever be a country for all?” — a question still debated today.

“Will we ever be able to stay in the same room with the people we hate and who hate us and deal? It explores that and doesn’t come to any answers in particular but just shows that this was happening then, even with the two greatest abolitionists in history,” Ms. Grice said.

Mr. Heidemann hopes that will resonate with audiences. “I think it’s going to speak to people because it’s about not only friendship but coexistence,” he said. “And being able to understand that sometimes we have to learn how to share the room. We can’t just walk out every time.”

“The Agitators” opens Friday, April 8 and runs through Saturday, April 16. Tickets are on sale for $25 at theagitators.brownpapertickets.com.