If you attended a performance of the “LBJ play” All the Way a few seasons ago at Asolo Rep, you may recall a scene set at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, where a Black woman from Mississippi named Fannie Lou Hamer spoke up for the party she helped found, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Chances are, unless you are a fairly conscientious amateur historian, you might not otherwise know Hamer, even though she was a dedicated, passionate civil rights activist during the crucial 1960s.
Now you have a chance to learn more about Hamer with the one-woman production at Asolo Rep (a rolling world premiere) of Cheryl L. West’s The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer. Yes, that’s right, music comes first in the title, because Hamer, in her speeches about the importance of the vote—and being able to register to vote in the Jim Crow South—often employed spirituals and hymns familiar from church to help draw listeners to her cause. The music is a critical piece of this short play, which stars E. Faye Butler in the title role of a poor, uneducated Black woman who nevertheless came to play a big part in the civil rights movement.
The play opens with a brief look at that 1964 convention, where Hamer’s talk was interrupted by an LBJ speech that seemed calculated to draw attention away from her. But Hamer persevered there, as she had often through her hard life, with a belief that survived attacks on her life and a brutal in-jail beating that affected her health permanently. However, the show doesn’t return to that convention moment, as you might expect it would, and the ending of the play feels rather abrupt and incomplete, perhaps partly because of that.
However, there are strong moments that can’t fail to touch your heart and mind along the way, as Fannie/Butler talks to us directly in her down-to-earth, person-to-person style. There is humor in her approach at times, as when she admits that she was 44 years old before she even heard she had a right to vote, and there’s a brief dance of jubilation when she finally achieves the milestone of being registered after repeated denials of that basic right.
But there are harrowing accounts, too, as we see and feel the pain she endured in that nearly fatal beating, witness an attack on a church gathering (through Aaron Rhyne’s projection designs), or hear her sorrow at the murders of Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner, whom she knew, during the “Freedom Summer,” killed for trying to help register voters.
Butler has a commanding stage presence as Hamer, along with a voice that can deliver civil rights anthems derived from hymns like “This Little Light of Mine,” “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize,” “Oh, Freedom,” “Certainly Lord” or, perhaps most important here, “I Know I’ve Been Changed.” With music direction and arrangements by Felton Offard, and two fellow musicians (Vivian Welch at keyboards and Aaron Washington on percussion), Butler has good backing, too. And you sense onstage the rapport between director Henry Godinez and his star, contributing to the intimacy and impact of the production overall.
The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer continues on Asolo Rep’s outdoor Terrace Stage through Feb. 27. There may be some added dates through March 3; check it out at asolorep.org.