Have you heard of Fannie Lou Hamer? Chances are, even if you have, you don’t know a great deal about this African-American activist who spent years in the 1950s and ’60s fighting for civil and voting rights. But that will change if you attend a performance of Fannie: The Life and Music of Fannie Lou Hamer, onstage Feb. 20 through March 3 on Asolo Rep’s outdoor Terrace Stage.
Hamer, who grew up in Mississippi in the days of the Jim Crow South and faced abuse, arrest and a brutal beating for her role in the movement towards equality, is the subject of this one-woman show, written by Cheryl L. West (Jar the Floor, Akeelah and the Bee and more) and starring E. Faye Butler as Fannie. Butler will be familiar to Asolo audiences who saw her as Queenie in the production of Show Boat several years ago; she, West and director Henry Godinez have worked together before, and share a passion for telling Fannie’s story. (Music director for the show is Felton Offard.)
Godinez is resident artistic associate at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, where Butler is also based. The Asolo Rep production is a “rolling” world premiere with the Goodman and Seattle Rep.
“We [West, Butler and Godinez] had all just worked together on an adaptation of a young adult play,” recalls Godinez, “when we commissioned her [ West] to write something and she settled on this piece about Fannie. She knew right away it had to be E. Faye Butler” playing the role.
Says Butler, “I knew the name of Fannie Lou Hamer, but hadn’t delved into the history much. Cheryl said to me, ‘I got something for you.’ Cheryl is a listener as a writer, so the minute I read it I said, ‘When do you want to hear it?’ She instantly called the Goodman. And I said it’s got to be Henry to direct. He has the right spirit. Some people might think no, he’s not black. [He’s Cuban-American.] But he’s the person who broke the barrier at the Goodman for Latinx people. So who else would you collaborate with, but someone who has the same fighting spirit as Fannie Lou Hamer? Henry and Cheryl are both fighters for their culture. Cheryl is a big hero for me about women who are unsung heroes.”
Butler adds, “Most people might have heard of her [Hamer] but have no idea why, like most women in history. They’re in the trenches doing some of the hardest work. They just don’t know what she’s done.” Interestingly, she says new Vice President Kamala Harris “constantly quoted Fannie Lou Hamer during this election cycle.”
Godinez concurs as to the timeliness of this piece. “When Cheryl decided to write it, she was kind of a fortune teller,” he says. “The attempts at voter suppression, in Georgia, Detroit, especially with communities of color, are absolutely as vile and deliberate as in Fannie’s time. There’s one wonderful line at the beginning of the show, a moment of realization.” Butler quotes it. “I thought by now things woulda done changed.”
Despite the hardships Hamer endured, Butler says the show in her honor is “absolutely hopeful. That’s all Fannie was about, was hope. She didn’t hate anybody. They beat her; she had permanent kidney damage, couldn’t see out of one eye, couldn’t walk well...she still got up and prayed for people.”
Butler and Godinez have presented public readings and abridged versions of the play earlier, outdoors, in both Chicago and Washington, D.C. But this production will be the original first full version for the first time. After performing outdoors in all kinds of weather, Butler says she will be ready for the challenge of this staging. “I’ve got all the information I need. Once I can hear her tone, hear her speech in my brain, then it’s no longer difficult. The biggest challenge is getting out of your own way.”
For more information and tickets, visit asolorep.org.