Fannie (The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer) by Cheryl L. West, now onstage at the Goodman Theatre, delivers a sorely needed injection of patriotism into our cynical electorate. But don’t balk at the word “patriotism”—this show is a far departure from your high school assembly. Fannie was presented abridged last fall in public parks, then traveled across the country before returning unabridged to Chicago.
The one-woman play tells the story of Hamer, a Black woman with a sixth-grade education who discovered that she had the right to vote in her 40s. That knowledge launched her like a rocket into an incredible career of activism, founding the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, speaking at the 1964 Democratic convention, working to eliminate literacy tests and other barriers to voting, and creating jobs and community resources for poor people of all races.
The indomitable E. Faye Butler (A Christmas Carol; Caroline, or Change) dazzles in the titular role, sucking the audience in like a whirlpool, and spitting them out after an intense 70 minutes. From the first moment she addresses the audience, you realize that this isn’t the kind of show where you can simply kick back and relax. Butler immediately fully engages the audience in call and response; leading the group in song, her powerful voice is louder than an entire theater of singers. (The sheer awesomeness of her voice cannot be overstated.) The engagement goes beyond being summoned to participate—the show inspires the audience to sing, clap, and shout in the tradition of the Black church. During one of the most well-crafted moments of the show, Butler preaches with a fiery aplomb that would make any pastor proud.
Fannie (The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer)
Through 11/21: Wed-Thu 7:30 PM, Fri 8 PM, Sat 2 and 8 PM, Sun 2 PM; also Tue 11/9, 7:30 PM and Thu 11/11, 2 PM; touch tour and audio described performance, Sat 11/6, 2 PM (touch tour at 12:30 PM), ASL interpreted performance Sat 11/13, 2 PM; open captioned performance Sun 11/14, 2 PM; Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, 312-443-3800, goodmantheatre.org, $15-$45.
The set design by Collette Pollard is a beautifully conceived holistic Americana pastiche of the good, bad, and ugly. The theater is draped with red-white-and-blue flag-inspired buntings, protest signs, and the household trappings of a Black southern Christian woman of that era—including the requisite photo of The Last Supper. Subtle ominous details like a church fan depicting murdered civil rights leaders and a golliwog doll fix us inexorably to that tumultuous era.
Hamer’s story is underscored by classic gospel spirituals and freedom songs that undercut both the highs and lows of her incredible life story. For one brief moment Butler sings a snippet of “Pick a Bale of Cotton,” a work song commonly sung in the cotton fields by enslaved people, reflecting Hamer’s childhood and adulthood occupation of working as a sharecropper. When the band enters on the stage (Deonté Brantley, Morgan E., Felton Offard) their existence is acknowledged, as contrasted with other productions where the band and supporting roles often fade to the back. Thematically, the simple gesture reflects Hamer’s legacy of redefining the role of the marginalized.
The show opens with an impeccable a cappella version of “Oh, Freedom,” then continues frenetically, successfully ramping up to a frenzy that never lets up. Director Henry Godinez never allows for boredom; however, there are some moments and transitions that could benefit from a few longer beats of silence, allowing the audience time to absorb the gravity of her words.
The trail to civil rights was paved in song and blood, and Fannie does not sugarcoat the cost of progress. The hope of the youth that swelled into the Freedom Summer, and the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and ’65, was motivated by anger and grief, after the Kennedy assassination, the murders of young activists like Medgar Evers, and the lynching and terror perpetrated by the Night Riders (Klan and other domestic terrorists) on everyday Black people. When Butler sings—no, SANGS—“I’ve Been Changed,” it’s a showstopper moment whose enormity expresses the anguish of too many sacrifices.
While many semibiographical pieces rewrite history, Fannie serves to set the record straight; Butler channels Hamer’s gentle and generous personality to voice some uncomfortable truths around allyship, intersectionality, and some of the most intractable barriers to unification across race, gender, and class. Suffrage for Black women was undercut by white suffragists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who oppressed Black progress even as she desperately tried to throw off the shackles of her own gender. The writing of the show smartly blurs the lines between historical and modern social justice goals. When we learn that Hamer worked with Betty Friedan and the recently departed John Lewis, it is a gut punch and a reminder that history is now.
Fannie is essential viewing that should be witnessed by high school students, all adults—and especially anyone who finds themselves apathetic about our current political environment. Fannie stiffens our backbones with a double dose of vigor and hope, reminding us that even when we are “sick and tired of being sick and tired,” our vote and our voices matter.