Historical heroes share power of friendship in ‘Agitators’

By John Lyle Belden

One interesting bit of American history is that two of the most influential civil rights figures of the 19th century, Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass, were also close friends. That relationship is explored in “The Agitators,” by Mat Smart, now at the Phoenix Theatre.

Douglass (played by Jerome Beck) was a former slave who spoke out on the evils of that institution. He meets Anthony (Lauren Briggeman) through her activist Quaker father. The initial meeting is a little rough, but Douglass tells her, “I am your friend.” “Though I put you off?” Anthony replies. “It is a trait I most admire in a friend,” he responds.

Indeed, the play’s title is not only apt, but embraced. “Agitate, agitate, agitate!” Douglass advises. And they do, both to end slavery and to secure equal rights for women. At first it is abolition that is the cause. They host a stop on the Underground Railroad, making beds with books — the seeds of knowledge denied to slaves — as pillows. They approach the oncoming war with hope and worry for the nation’s future. Then, in Reconstruction, the spectre of compromise raises up as it appears that black men will receive the vote ahead of women.

These two share a deep friendship, and fiery yet eloquent arguments — “Don’t quote me to me!” — but never stay apart long, standing steadfast for each other. Beck and Briggeman portray these very human heroes with excellence, helping us to feel their ongoing struggles against society, injustice, politics, and occasionally each other. Though it is just these two we see, the Phoenix mainstage is barely big enough to contain them, on a creative stage design by Inseung Park, with lighting by Zac Hunter. Mikael Burke, who also captained the IRT’s “Watson’s Go To Birmingham,” directs.

As Black History Month has given way to Women’s History Month, we still have so much to learn of both. As Douglass implores at a critical moment in the play, “Look at what is before you, and see what I see.” 

Performances of “The Agitators” run through March 22 at the Phoenix, 705 N. Illinois in downtown Indianapolis. Free tickets for students are available. Call 317-635-7529 or visit PhoenixTheatre.org.

IndyFringe: The Madwomen’s Late-Nite Cabaret

This show is part of the 15th Annual Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival, a/k/a IndyFringe, Aug. 15-25, 2019 on Mass Ave downtown. Info, etc., at www.IndyFringe.org.

By Wendy Carson

From the moment that Lizzie Borden (Cody Ricks) dashes across stage to take her seat at the piano, you know that this show is anything but serious.

We then welcome our beloved hostess Ethel Merman (Dave Ruark hamming it up at his best) straight from her triumphant turn as “Annie”.

Throughout the night we are privy to songs revealing aspects of these historical icons who are more misunderstood than evil.

Shawnte Gaston has a quick turn as Medusa but spends most of the show co-hosting as Eve, the embodiment of maternal energy and possibly the most misrepresented of them all. She belts out her sentiments in both “What’s the Matter With Kids Today” and “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.”

Julie Lyn Barber embodies women as diverse as Typhoid Mary, Amelia Earhart, and Mary Stuart but she really stands out as Sybil singing “I Am My Own Best Friend”.

Georgeanna Smith Wade gives us a hilarious look into the mindset of Procne (most people know her as Medea) but it is her sultry version of Mata Hari performing “Bang, Bang” that really shines.

Add to this Jaddy Ciucci (although on the performance I saw this role was played by Devan Mathias), portraying not only Joan of Arc, Philomela, and Ann Boleyn, but a “Physical Embodiment of a Controlled Substance” (Mary Jane) and pleadingly insisting “I’d Be Good For You”

Needless to say, these women (and characters) deserve to be seen and heard and who knows when you will get another chance to do so. Presented by Main Street Artists, remaining performances are 9 p.m. Saturday and 1:30 Sunday at the IndyFringe Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair.

IndyFringe: Jeannette Rankin: Champion of Persistence

This show is part of the 15th Annual Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival, a/k/a IndyFringe, Aug. 15-25, 2019 on Mass Ave downtown. Info, etc., at www.IndyFringe.org.

By John Lyle Belden

You might not have heard of her, but after you see this one-woman show you won’t forget her. Jeannette Rankin campaigned nationwide for women’s suffrage, helping to bring it about in her native Montana. She was also elected twice to the U.S. House of Representatives, where she pushed for peace and various reforms.

At times she seemed on the wrong side of history — she could not bring herself to vote for America’s entry into World War II — but especially with her resistance to war in Vietnam, she mainly proved to be a woman ahead of her time.

Written and performed by J. Emily Peabody for Thorn Productions, she puts an irresistible energy into her portrayal of Rankin. What could have been a dry recitation of history comes across more like a rally.

To help spread knowledge of this persistent American hero, Peabody offers copies of her script, with details beyond what she presents in the Fringe-length show, for sale after each performance. She will be at the District Theater (former TOTS location), 627 Massachusetts Ave. on Thursday, Saturday and Sunday (Aug. 22, 24 & 25).

IndyFringe: ‘Broadway’s Leading Ladies: A Tribute’

This show is part of the 14th Annual Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival, a/k/a IndyFringe, Aug. 16-26, 2018 on Mass Ave downtown. Info, etc., at www.IndyFringe.org.

By John Lyle Belden

Presented by Dustin Klein and Tom Alvarez and their Magic Thread Cabaret, “Broadway’s Leading Ladies” is a rousing revue sung by local divas Shelbi Berry, Rayanna Bibbs and Virginia Vasquez.

From the moment the trio get to “work” on a hit from “Hamilton,” we are treated to one powerful performance after another. You’ll want Vasquez to “Gimme, Gimme” more, see Berry “Defying Gravity,” and be reassured that Bibbs is “…Not Going.” Yes, as the latter song says, you’re gonna love them.

Kudos also to the three-piece band of Klein, Greg Gegogeine and Greg Wolff, as well as Austin Schlenz for his on-stage assistance.

No tables at this cabaret, on the third floor of the Firehouse union hall (748 Mass Ave.), but we don’t care — they would only get in the way of the standing ovation.

IndyFringe: ‘Intrusion’

This show is part of the 14th Annual Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival, a/k/a IndyFringe, Aug. 16-26, 2018 on Mass Ave downtown. Info, etc., at www.IndyFringe.org.

By John Lyle Belden

In an America where one of the horrors of civilization is believed to be long vanquished, an insomniac looks across the street at the nearby hospital to see an injured woman enter. Curious, she goes closer and hears a word that chills her — Rape!

In the utopia of “Intrusion,” (now also an Off-Broadway show) written and performed by Qurrat Ann Kadwani, there has been no report of sexual assault in 20 years. This first person — a bystander who becomes an activist — is one of eight characters Kadwani presents coming to terms with this new world that is starting to feel like the old one — a/k/a the one we unfortunately live in now. Among them, a reporter feels the chill of getting the story of a generation, a prosecutor worries the rape trial will be a career killer, a psychologist tries to address such an emotionally fraught topic with clinical detachment, a politician laments that this is coming up during an election year, and a third-grader just wants to be told what’s going on.

Can something so insidiously imbedded in our culture be “cured, like polio”? Kadwani easily slips from one persona to another, as the mood gets more and more uneasy. A lone “outlier” rape accusation inspires more women speaking up. Many more. While some are concerned for public safety, still others don’t like these events upsetting — perhaps negating — the status quo they invested so much in. The fragile nature of our social construction is revealed in a popular game.

Kadwani brings us an excellently written and executed one-woman show. My more critical inner voice couldn’t help but consider that this was just one more “issue play” — the stories of personal pain, the stark statistics of the pervasiveness of sexual assault in America and worldwide, I’ve heard them all before, so many times. But to our horror and shame, that fact is very much the point.

Make this New Yorker feel welcome; performances are in the first floor of the Firehouse union hall, 748 Mass Ave.

IndyFringe: ‘The Supersonic Suffrage Story You Never Heard in School’

This show is part of the 14th Annual Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival, a/k/a IndyFringe, Aug. 16-26, 2018 on Mass Ave downtown. Info, etc., at www.IndyFringe.org.

By Wendy Carson

Can you name just five women who were part of the American Suffrage movement? Probably not. Sally Perkins couldn’t do it either.

However, rather than memorizing a few names for herself, she decided to do something to remedy this situation: Welcome to a whirlwind lesson on the history of the Suffrage movement, complete with all of the modern technology you can think of.

Incorporating anachronistic references to texting and Twitter and other tech is not only amusing, but also helps you appreciate today’s instantaneous communication options as we identify with the plight of these women in their struggles to gain basic human rights.

While she presents us with an intimidating amount of data, it is presented in a cheery light and it is not until the end of the show that you realize how much you have actually just learned.

So, what do Sherlock Holmes, Lady Gaga, Melissa McCarthy, and Julie Andrews have to do with the Suffrage movement — and why did it take almost 100 years for women to finally win the right to vote?

You will have to come see this delightful show to learn these answers and more. Performances are Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday at the Firehouse union hall, third floor, 748 Mass Ave.

IndyFringe: ‘Mary and Her Monsters’

This show is part of the 14th Annual Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival, a/k/a IndyFringe, Aug. 16-26, 2018 on Mass Ave downtown. Info, etc., at www.IndyFringe.org.

By Wendy Carson

You know that Mary Shelley wrote “Frankenstein,” but do you know who she actually was — and what her life was like — to inspire her to give us this story?

Lou Ann Homan stretches her storytelling chops to give us the naïve innocence that led Mary to her destiny.

Mary was far too innocent and star-struck by Percy Shelley to realize how he was manipulating her. She honestly believed he loved her but overlooked the multiple instances of his infidelity and cruelty to her and her children. Even though she strove to be a writer, and fought to learn more of science, medicine and other things considered “not for girls,” she was constantly foiled by her circumstances.

Still, she persevered — that really is the message here. She fought and kept trying until she finally made a success. While the publishing of her novel did not change her circumstance in any way, it still made her feel complete.

Come hear the story behind the legend and discover the truth of what is wrapped in that silk cloth lovingly placed on her desk.

“Mary and Her Monsters” is presented by Homan at the Firehouse union hall, 748 Mass Ave.