Theater review

It must have happened to you at some point — a longtime friend settles on a name change (Steve to Stephen, Melissa to Misty) and it takes you a while to get the hang of it.

Frederick Douglass feels your pain.

“Susan B. Anthony?” Douglass (Reginald André Jackson) asks his longtime friend who, last he heard, was called Susan Anthony. “That,” he says with the faintest whiff of vexation, “will take some time to get used to.” Uncharacteristically, she passes over his comment in silence.

It’s 1861, and the two are in their early 40s, at Douglass’ house in Rochester, New York, setting out bedrolls for Harriet Tubman and whomever she brings with her that night on the Underground Railroad. Douglass hands Anthony (Carol Roscoe) books off his shelf for pillows: “Madame Bovary,” Aesop’s “Fables” (one of his favorites) and “David Copperfield,” which Douglass opens to show off Charles Dickens’ signature.

“What was he like?” Anthony asks, a little amazed. “He was in a hurry,” Douglass says. “And he had breadcrumbs in his goatee. That is all I remember.”

“The Agitators,” a 2017 play by Mat Smart and directed by Valerie Curtis-Newton, unfolds like a scrapbook, with snippets of conversation between Douglass and Anthony during their decades-long struggles for abolition and voting rights. They compare notes, debate (sometimes passionately and bitterly) about where to focus their efforts and occasionally trade private, soul-searching observations and jokes. (Anthony admits neither of them are very funny; Douglass begs to differ.)

Smart, who flew up from Los Angeles for the opening weekend, said not many letters exist between Douglass and Anthony (“his house burned down and she burned all her letters”), but he cobbled together the play with heavy research, including newspaper articles that allowed him to trace their speaking and organizing itineraries around the country. “They were with each other all the time!” Smart said. “They didn’t need to write.”

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The play sometimes wears its history-exposition a little heavily (Anthony: “Do you think Harriet will have news?” Douglass: “When has Harriet Tubman ever not had news?”), but watching these two icons grow together as friends, foils and friends again is worth a little last-name-dropping.

Roscoe plays Anthony as steely, unyielding and restless (the fact that she does not “know how to sit” is a recurring joke) while Jackson’s Douglass is the violin-playing luminary, former slave turned national figurehead, with a deep undercurrent of pain and gravitas.

But they’re both deeply passionate about “the cause” — so their occasional disagreements about what should take priority (voting rights for black men or for all women?) have the personal and moral force of a juggernaut. These aren’t “let’s agree to disagree” issues.

In one fierce exchange in 1869, in a New York City boardinghouse where Anthony is staying, the two have a history-making fight over the  15th Amendment, which would secure voting rights for black men. Anthony calls it a betrayal, since it doesn’t add women’s suffrage to the mix.

The normally placid Douglass bursts out: “They are killing us! This is not a question of rights. This is life or death for the black man.” Anthony: “For women as well.” Douglass tears into a speech about black men being hunted, their houses burned, their children stolen. “When you are dragged from your house and hung upon a lamppost,” he concludes, “then you will have the urgency to obtain the ballot equal to my own!”

“Is that not all true about all black women?” Anthony asks. “How many women do I know — black and white — who have been beaten and raped without recourse? Open your eyes! We cannot protect ourselves without the vote. Our bodies are objects, constantly under attack.”

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“As a child of rape,” Douglass says coolly, “I know of the violence women face.”

“The Agitators” wants to humanize history — and this moment is the play at its most engrossing, watching two deeply committed people who love each other, break each other’s hearts because the things they’re fighting for are more urgent than any one person in their lives.

They reconcile a year later, at a baseball game, while Douglass eats peanuts, cheers on his son, tries to explain the rules and tells Anthony that, since the 15th Amendment has passed, “I am your soldier. There is no greater cause to me now.” It’s a tender moment — until she squeezes his hand. A white man in the crowd with a pistol in his pocket sees the gesture, looks enraged and goes to find a cop.

Douglass abruptly stands. “Never touch me in public again,” he commands. “Now I must miss my son’s game.” Anthony is stunned: “You’re going to leave me here alone to face them?” “Your skin,” he snaps, “will keep you safe.”

Still, they’re reconciled — as reconciled as two cantankerous crusaders ever can be. Years later, they’re lying on the floor of the White House, looking at the ceiling (apparently, in his old age Douglass liked to lie on floors and wasn’t shy about it), while Anthony nettles him for getting too comfortable with his prestige.

Like the best of friends, they held each other accountable to the end.

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“The Agitators” by Mat Smart. Through June 30; West of Lenin, 203 N. 36th St., Seattle; $35; 800-838-3006, westoflenin.com