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F.C.’s Penning Continues Prestigious Career On Stage with Susan B. Anthony Portrayal

MARNI PENNING stars in “The Agitators,” which details the, at times, mutalistic and contentious relationship of Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass. (Photo: Courtesy Stan Barouh)

There’s only a few days left to catch the Little City’s very own thespian, Marni Penning, in her latest display of theatrical excellence.

A 10-year Falls Church resident and a lifelong actress of stage and screen, Penning’s finishing up her run portraying Susan B. Anthony in Mosaic Theater Company’s “The Agitators.”

In “The Agitators,” she is the ardent suffragette (1820-1906) who worked decades advocating for the passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution granting women the right to vote.

Anthony did not live to see it adopted in 1920.

Her half-century friendship with abolitionist Frederick Douglass (1818-1895, played by Ro Boddie) and their hopes and dreams for an improved society form the basis for the play which is much more than two people sitting and reminiscing, but struggling and growing together.

“[The play] is about how we can agree to disagree,” Penning said. “We really need that now, even if we have been sufficiently disappointed in our lives, especially politically, if we as individuals experience a setback. They [Anthony and Douglass] never stopped fighting for what they believed in.”

Many scene and costume changes, historical events, a hilarious baseball scene and an innovative musical score of hip hop, rap and traditional 19th century pieces whet interest in the dialogue. (Never mind that a few contemporary songs have four-letter words; they are barely noticeable.)

Penning’s six-year-old son saw the play and loved it!

“He came away from it saying it shows how important it is to be good to one another and try and see how others feel so we can help each other out, even if it’s in someone else’s best interests instead of your own,” she said in a phone interview.
Penning’s on-stage embodiment of Anthony is just the latest feather in the cap of her storied theatre career.

Penning began theatre work at age six when she wrote a script praising the PTA at Claremont Elementary School in Arlington where her family lived. She ended the play doing splits.

She and her three sisters (none of whom continued in theatre) used to put on “little skits” in their house and in the backyard.
Penning’s Shakespeare specialty (she’s performed 54 productions of 23 Shakespeare works) began with her first Shakespeare when she was eight and “an amazing fourth-grade teacher who changed my life.”

Then it was on to the Kennedy Center for a show at age 11 and the Little Theatre of Alexandria for “The Chalk Garden” at 12, all the while taking theatre classes.

Throughout secondary school and college she continued acting, graduating from Arlington’s Washington-Lee High School and James Madison University with a degree in theatre and graphic design.

From there it was on to tour Europe and Scotland with the American Shakespeare Center for three years, followed by a few years with theatre classmates in Cincinnati (where she founded the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company now celebrating its 25th year) and then, New York.

She came home for a high school reunion and happened to meet the man of her dreams, her soon husband-to-be and a Falls Church resident.

“I love this area…I don’t want to live away from my family. I waited so long to start a one.” She treasures every moment with them, especially her son since she’s at work six nights a week when it’s his bedtime.

She takes him often to shows at Falls Church’s Creative Cauldron and 1st Stage in Tysons.

About five years ago Penning founded D.C. Theatre Parents which now numbers 300 members.

“It’s such a great area for theatre.” Penning has been in productions at all the major theatre companies in the D.C. area, and acted in soap operas, “Law and Order” and “Saturday Night Live” several times.

Next up on her performance calendar is a show at Studio Theatre, “Admissions,” which starts in January.

Last shows of “The Agitators” are this Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday, 7:30 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday matinees, 3 p.m. which have post-show discussions.

Tickets may be bought at mosaictheater.org or the box office, 202-399-7993, ext. 155. Mosaic Theater performs at the Atlas Performing Arts Center (1333 H St., N.E. Washington, 20002.)