Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony are recognizable names from history, famous fighters on behalf of abolition and women's suffrage.
Many might not realize that they also were contemporaries and friends.
Douglass and Anthony both grew up in the early 1800s in New England and spent their lives championing human rights causes. They were often allies and sometimes adversaries as they fought to achieve their own missions — abolishing slavery and securing women's right to vote.
Pure Theatre's latest play "Agitators," written by Mat Smart and directed by Sharon Graci, explores their 45-year friendship through the Civil War and to the highest halls of government. It runs on select dates until May 18.
Michael Smallwood, who plays Douglass in the local production, has been a member at Pure since 2011. Before that, he was a theater student at the College of Charleston and then served as an apprentice in Atlanta.
Going into the play, Smallwood had limited knowledge on both historical figures. But he has since absorbed two very comprehensive personal stories after diving into his role.
"If you had asked me before this play if those two people had shared the same moment in history, I’m not sure I would’ve known," he admits.
Smallwood has managed to pull most of the context he's needed directly from the script without getting bogged down in a wealth of biographical knowledge that exists beyond.
"A lot of times in trying to stay with historical accuracy, you can sacrifice the dramatic present of what is happening on stage," Smallwood says. "Mat Smart has written play full of historical information that goes toward helping you build scenes without having to get lost in an entire autobiography."
Though he's absorbed a lot of relevant information by simply memorizing his lines, Smallwood's outside research did reveal an interesting fact. Though Douglass and Anthony were both avid speech makers, neither of their voices was ever recorded, making it hard to replicate their speech patterns.
"They had the technology to record peoples’ voices by the 1870s, so the fact that no one ever did is one of those historical anomalies for two people whose careers were defined by their speech," Smallwood says.
He also says that, in a way, it's more challenging to play a historical figure than a fictional character created for a play, since the audience already has preconceived notions of who they are. Yet, he says, ultimately all human beings have the same emotional range, whether real or fabricated.
That is what carries him through the performance; it's the emotional connection portrayed in both Douglass and Anthony's mutual understanding between one another and strong-willed moments of tension.
Emily Wilhoit, who plays Anthony, originally came to Charleston for an internship at Charleston Stage in 2001. She ran Theater Charleston for nine years and first performed for Pure a decade ago.
With this production, she notes how Douglass and Anthony's histories are pertinent to today's political and societal climate.
"The script sparks so much conversation about all kinds of things: gender identity, discrimination, politics; there's so much to unpack and dig through and talk about," she says.
Both actors attest that we're still having the same debates over 170 years since the start of the play.
"That’s a sobering thought," Smallwood says. "It's eye-opening to have this window into the past shining light on arguments that feel so contemporary."
In addition to hitting on pertinent political and human rights' issues, "The Agitators" also incites other avenues of dialogue. For instance, Smallwood says, both Anthony and Douglass learned in different times that they had to fight for their own cause even when it didn't necessarily help the other cause. But the play doesn't take sides as to whether that's wrong or right. It's open to interpretation.
"It raises the question, 'Are you abandoning someone else’s cause when you’re focusing on your own?'" Smallwood shares.
Ultimately, Wilhoit says, "The Agitators" has a cultural gravitas that feels unbelievably relevant so many years into the future.
"(Susan B. Anthony) never got to see woman's suffrage achieved, but even today, she would see there is still work to be done," Wilhoit says. "It gives context of how far we’ve come and how far we haven’t come. I love how it reminds us how hard people fought so we can get where we are and how it’s our responsibility to take that torch and keep moving with it. We’re never done."