Justin Harris as Frederick Douglass and Bonnie Grice as Susan B. Anthony bring to life two of the most prominent abolitionists and suffragists of the 19th Century. Photo: Alek Lewis

Susan B. Anthony and Fredrick Douglass sit on bleachers next to each other, watching a 19th century American baseball game and making small talk. 

They discuss the constantly changing rules of the game that plagued the sport’s early history; joke about whether Anthony’s alligator-skin purse is a symbol to advance women’s rights; and make a date for the next day to discuss their cause, all before Douglass notices that a white man sitting near them is staring iritably at their amiability — and has a pistol in his pocket.

Douglass tells Anthony never to touch him in public, and then moves to leave: “You are not going to leave me alone, are you?” Anthony says.

“Your skin will keep you safe,” Douglass replies. End scene.

The decades-long friendship of Anthony and Douglass — two of the most prominent abolitionists and voting rights advocates of the 19th century — is the subject of “The Agitators,” a 2019 historical drama penned by Mat Smart. 

The Long Island debut of the play, produced by the boots on the ground theater company, which performs historical theater and is the company in residency at the Southampton Cultural Center, will be staged at the Vail-Leavitt Music Hall in Riverhead the weekends of April 8-17. 

The play, through scenes depicting Douglass and Anthony’s intimate conversations as both allies and enemies in the movement for women’s suffrage, stars Riverhead resident Justin Harris as Douglass, opposite East End radio host and boots on the ground founder Bonnie Grice as Anthony.

The relationship between the two historical figures was strained because of an ideological split in the women’s suffrage movement over the 15th Amendment during the post-Civil War Reconstruction Era. While Douglass was in the faction that supported the amendment, which gave Black men the right to vote, Anthony took the stance that the amendment did not go far enough because it did not guarantee voting rights for women.

Justin Harris as Frederick Douglass and Bonnie Grice as Susan B. Anthony rehearsing at the Vail-Leavitt this week. Photo: Alek Lewis

“We all see Susan B. Anthony in textbooks, or we see Frederick Douglass in textbooks or on coins or stamps, but there’s so much more than just these images,” said Mark Heidemann, who is making his directorial debut with “The Agitators.”

“They were people. They had fears. They had strengths. They had so many things happen to them in their lives that were absolutely harrowing. And this play distills it down to these two people.”

Douglass, a former slave who escaped from the south, became the publisher of anti-slavery newspapers and toured the Northern United States speaking against slavery before the Civil War. After the war, Douglass continued his fight for suffrage and equal rights for African Americans and women during Reconstruction. 

“I get to really dive into what it was to be Frederick Douglass the man, as well as the abolitionist and historical figure,” Harris said. “I get to explore what it is to want to change. How do we find change? And how do we include the people that we need to create change? And educating the people around me, including Susan B. Anthony.”

Although the play is written with only two roles in mind, Douglass’ part is split in two for the production. While Harris plays the physical and intellectual embodiment of Douglass, Eugene Hamilton performs as Douglass’ creative spirit through playing the violin. 

“Frederick Douglass loved the violin; that was his release,” Hamilton said. “His wife taught him how to play, and his whole entire free life he spent dragging around his violin and playing as much as he can and teaching his children to play — and he did duets with his wife. So although it’s not about the violin, him and his violin are a huge expression of Frederick Douglass.”

Anthony, born to an abolitionist family, was throughout her life a leader in women’s rights movements as an organizer and newspaper publisher. Although she died before the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1919, the amendment was known through her name during its passage. 

“It’s just amazing to be able to step into her boots and try to bring her to life. Susan B. has had a lot written about her. There’s been a lot of controversy about her. I think that this play will give a real insight into her character and what drove her,” said Grice, who considers Anthony a “lifelong hero.”

“What you see in this play is Susan B. Anthony as a human being, as a young woman, connecting with Frederick Douglass, as a woman who becomes an abolitionist, as a woman who admits her flaws, and the fact that she at one point in the play says I will never be a mother. And she knows that it’s not going to happen because she’s married to her cause,” Grice said.

Anthony met Douglass in Rochester, where they both lived, during meetings with progressive activists in the mid-19th Century at Anthony’s family farm and remained lifelong friends. 

The cast said they see parallels between the fights against slavery and the right to vote more than 150 years ago, and civil rights movements in the present day.

“It’s a really timely play, because it’s about how we are going to coexist, not only in this country, but in this world?,” Heidemann said. “And there’s a point in the play where Susan says, boy, it’s 1849, why are we still dealing with this kind of problem? And we could be saying that in 2022.”

“I think it’ll speak to people. I think it says that there are opportunities that are all around us, we just have to seize them. And sometimes passing the buck and waiting for someone else to do it isn’t enough,” Heidemann added.

Harris said the play is special because it can start those conversations about progress and the human spirit. “It’s not necessarily the feel-good play of the century, but it really does beg you to look into yourself and find what in the world affects you, how you can make it better, [and] what is your part in life, for better or for worse,” he said. “Frederick Douglass references Aesop’s Fables a lot. And one of my lines is Aesop challenges us to face our twisting, changing, selfish nature. And that’s what the show can do for everyone.”

The play also explores the stigmatized interracial friendship of Anthony and Douglass, and how even though it brought them together to fight for their cause, their lived experience and differing points of view also drove them apart in many ways, Hamilton said.

“Even today, certain things will happen to you as an ethnic minority, and your friends who don’t share the same experience will be like, ‘Well, what’s your problem? What’s up with that?’,” Hamilton said. He said his favorite theme of the play is how Anthony and Douglass could maintain their closeness, even after butting heads.

In addition to being Heidemann’s directorial debut, Lydia Korneffel, a senior at Ward Melville High School, will debut at boots on the ground theater as a stage manager in “The Agitators.” She has been involved in acting before, but said it has been a great opportunity to get experience in a professional setting.

“I feel like I’ve already learned so much that I wouldn’t have as just doing shows as an actor just at my school,” she said.

Grice said that although they had their differences, the love between Anthony and Douglass, and their contributions to the United States’ history, shines throughout the play.

“They changed the dynamic of our country for the better and that in and of itself is something that we are so proud of — and we hope so many people will come and see ‘The Agitators,’” Grice said. “I love the line that they agitated the nation and each other for over 50 years.”

Tickets for “The Agitators” at the Vail-Leavitt Music Hall are on sale at this website for $25. Friday showtimes are at 7 p.m., Saturday showtimes are at 8 p.m. and Sunday showtimes are at 3 p.m..

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Alek Lewis is a lifelong Riverhead resident and a 2021 graduate of Stony Brook University’s School of Communication and Journalism. Previously, he served as news editor of Stony Brook’s student newspaper, The Statesman, and was a member of the campus’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Email: alek@riverheadlocal.com