“Like most folks, all I knew of Frederick Douglass were the pictures, the hair,” says Mays, referring to Douglass’ thick, black (and later white) locks. “I knew he was an abolitionist and very important to American culture, but I didn’t know much about his history. After reading the play, I became much more aware of who he was and what he accomplished.”
“The Agitators” stars Mays as Douglass and Lambert as Susan B. Anthony. Contemporaries in Rochester, New York, Douglass and Anthony were friends and sometimes adversaries, he pushing for African American rights and she pushing for women’s rights, sometimes at odds with each other.
“We know they shared correspondence, and they shared ideas,” Mays says. “A lot of the situations we see in the play are imagined, but the conversations in the play are taken from historical texts and letters and other places. If these two were in the same place at the same time, these are conversations they might have had.”
The play, with drama and humor, explores the relationship between two of the most well-known figures of the 19th century.
“They were two friends,” Mays says of Douglass and Anthony. “They had their passions. They were in each other’s homes. Their families knew each other. What folks will see are a white woman and a black man in a room together being close friends and confidantes. It’s a beautiful story on that level.”
Based in Chicago, Mays has worked for the famed Goodman Theatre and his own Onus Theatre Company. He also recently appeared in a number of episodes of the Showtime series “The Chi.”
He was able to work ASF’s production of “The Agitators” into his schedule, along with Lambert and director Logan Vaughn, who directed the two in the world premiere at the Geva Theatre Center in Rochester.
“It’s interesting to revisit a play you did 2 1/2 years ago, to see how you’ve changed as an actor,” Mays says. “It’s easier and challenging at the same time. It’s easier to memorize, but at Geva, we did it in a larger space and on a proscenium stage. What we’re doing here at ASF is a proscenium thrust, a different set-up.”
It’s also a different atmosphere mounting the play in Montgomery, home of some civil rights struggles and the new Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice. Mays and Lambert have visited both spots, as well as Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was in the pulpit, and Selma, the site of 1965’s “Bloody Sunday.”
“All of these things influence the play,” Mays says. “A lot of things in this play, if these folks were not dressed in period costumes, you’d think what they were talking about might have happened yesterday – women’s rights, voting, black rights, people being systematically brutalized. … They’re all still relevant today.”
And Douglass’ story continues to inspire the actor.
“One of the things I find most interesting about him is where he came from and where he ended up,” Mays says. “He writes in his autobiography about being raised on a plantation where kids are running around with no clothes on, eating out of troughs like animals. This man, treated like that, ascends to being arguably the most celebrated and definitely the best-dressed man of the 19th century. How do you go from eating with pigs to dining with the president?”
“The Agitators” runs through Thursday on the Alabama Shakespeare Festival’s Octagon Stage.