I first saw Fannie during its tour of Chicago city parks in the fall of 2020. Since that abridged version, the play has gone on to be enjoyed by audiences in Seattle, Washington D.C, Sarasota, Florida and Ashland, Oregon. Written by Cheryl L West, this one-woman play with music exalts the life and workings of civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer.
Hamer was central to the founding of both the National Women’s Political Caucus and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which fought for the political advancement of both women and people of color respectively. She then later launched the Freedom Farm Cooperative, which sought to buy land for black people to collectively farm and sustain black life in Mississippi. A survivor of police brutality, misogyny, voter suppression, and a forced hysterectomy, Hamer is a symbol of perseverance and non-violent resistance.
The play begins with a mic being ripped away from Hamer as she addresses delegates at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, and then proceeds to transcend time and space to travel the peaks and valleys of her trauma, as well as her experiences as a black woman and activist in the Jim Crow South.
Though the original traveling production featured very little other than a mic center stage and the natural atmosphere of the local parks, the homecoming production makes good use of the sleek grandness of the Owen Theatre. Director Henry Godinez tastefully weaves together civil rights images and stylized movement, while music director Felton Offard constructs a score of black spirituals to elevate this hero’s journey to epic proportions. Much like Hamer exclaims herself, the directing style does not shy away from very openly showing the audience “what it is and how it is.”
If I was to liken this production to a very well oiled machine, it must be said that E. Faye Butler is the steady motor propelling it forward. Broad and bold in manner and speech, Butler is a titan of epic proportions. She holds her audience with the same firm grip that the likes of Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks used as they defiantly walked hand in hand from Selma to Montgomery in protest. Butler wears the deep despair and bountiful joy of Hamer’s life like a registered voter sticker displayed proudly upon the chest. Her voice reverberates to the back of the theatre and sends waves of raw emotion through the audience time and time again. Through her portrayal it is clear that black trauma is a continuum, and the strange fruits of the civil rights movement were watered by the tears of those gone too soon. Medgar Evers, Emmet Till, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner… we speak your names.
Anna Deveare Smith, a dramatist and activist known for her documentation and portrayal of black life on stage, has stated that she hopes the effect of her work encourages audiences to ask “What can be done?” as opposed to lingering in the black hole of shock and helplessness.
Fannie (The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer) is a reminder of the weary road we have trod together as Americans in our search for equality. Though Hamer died at age 59, it was clear that there was much more she wished to see done. If Hamer were alive today (and through E. Faye Butler she very well is) there is no doubt what her response would be to those who may find themselves asking “What can be done?”
She would certainly say “Vote!” and “Don’t you let nobody turn you around.”
Fannie (The Music and LIfe of Fannie Lou Hamer) runs at the Goodman Theatre thru Nov 21st.
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E. Fay Butler
Written by Cheryl West
Directed by Henry Godinez
Music Direction by Felton Offard
Set Design by Collette Pollard
Costume Design by Michael Alan Stein
Lighting Design by Jason Lynch
Sound Design by Victoria Deiorio
Projection Design by Rasean Davonte Johnson
Wig Design by Mr. Bernard
Casting By Lauren Port, CSA
Dramaturgy by Christine Sumption
Production Stage Management by Kaitlin Kitzmiller
Photo Credit: Liz Lauren