Riverside’s ‘The Agitators’ a timely exploration of 19th century concerns that still plague us

The Agitators

Riverside Theatre — through Feb. 16

Jessica Link and Curtis M. Jackson in ‘The Agitators.’ — Rob Merritt/Riverside Theatre

Riverside Theatre opened its first play of 2020 with an intense reminder of the importance of history, civil rights and activism. The Agitators, by Mat Smart, opened Friday night and runs through Feb. 16 (tickets are $10-30). But if you are still deciding whether or not it’s worth it to caucus on Feb. 3, see this show sooner rather than later — you will be reminded that political life is essential to advancing our country, and you may begin to wonder if we have really come very far at all since the 19th century.

Jessica Link portrays Susan B. Anthony and Curtis M. Jackson is Fredrick Douglass in this retrospective of their friendship and political lives, which often found them at odds with one another. Link and Jackson are delightful in their first meeting at the Anthony Farm; as they begin their friendship, we see a human side to these larger-than-life characters.

Jessica Link and Curtis M. Jackson in ‘The Agitators.’ — Rob Merritt/Riverside Theatre

The smart acting choices here show the audience that Douglass and Anthony’s friendship and activism were built on mutual respect, the central question of which was “Can this be a country for all?”

Jackson and Link take the characters through the highs and lows of their relationship as well as their public lives. From pre-Civil War talks to the Underground Railroad and on through reconstruction and the advancement of the 15th and 19th amendments, the story of these intersecting lives is powerfully portrayed.

Link truly brings to Susan B. Anthony to life when she sternly questions the roles Douglass’ wife played in her life. Likewise, Jackson powerfully calls out white privilege when he resignedly notes that his friend need not worry about a nearby policeman because, “your skin will keep you safe.” Through their impassioned discussions, one sees privilege, sexism and racism from both characters’ points of view.

Jessica Link and Curtis M. Jackson in ‘The Agitators.’ — Rob Merritt/Riverside Theatre

Staged on a rotating platform that puts one in mind of Fortune’s wheel (set design and technical direction by S. Benjamin Farrar), the minimal set adds just enough backdrop to bring the words and ideals of the script into sharp focus. Through artful use of gels and strobe effects, lighting design by Jim Vogt sets the tone for each scene.

Direction by Christopher Okiishi is powerful, especially the transitions. One especially goosebump-worthy moment is the close of the first act where, after a heated argument about voting rights, Douglass hoists a heavy trunk on his shoulders and exits to Childish Gambino’s “This is America.”

By the end of The Agitators, audience members are advised to “use the privileged air you breathe” and to “speak out, especially at the polls.” Both are apt reminders at the beginning of this political season.

Jessica Link and Curtis M. Jackson in ‘The Agitators.’ — Rob Merritt/Riverside Theatre

Riverside has several talkbacks planned following performances of The Agitators. All are free to the public, regardless if they attended the performance that the talkback follows.

Sunday, Jan. 26th
League of Women Voters of Johnson County panel discussion, moderated by Diana Henry (African American Museum of Iowa)

Sunday, Feb. 2nd
Prof. Miriam Gilbert with playwright Mat Smart

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Saturday, Feb. 8th
Prof. Adrien Wing (Law; UI Center for Human Rights) and Prof. Leslie A. Schwalm (History; Gender, Women’s & Sexuality Studies), moderated by Prof. Lois Cox.

Saturday, Feb. 15th
Prof. Anna Barker and cast