Sarasota, Florida’s Asolo Rep continues its 2021 outdoor season with the Rolling World Premiere of Mississippi native Cheryl L. West’s Fannie: The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer. Originally commissioned by Goodman Theatre and Seattle Rep—and presented last October by Arena Stage—Fannie tells the story of American Civil Rights freedom fighter Fannie Lou Hamer.
“Fannie Lou Hamer was a woman of incredible passion with an unstoppable drive for justice,” said Asolo Rep Producing Artistic Director Michael Donald Edwards. “We are thrilled to collaborate with two of our country’s leading regional theaters to bring her story to life. It is written by the immensely talented Cheryl L. West and performed by E. Faye Butler, who is herself an unstoppable force on stage.”
In his introductory remarks, Edwards recognized and thanked audience members from the government and announced that Asolo received $2.5 million in Cares Act PPP funds, which allowed the company to hire a safety manager and cross-train its existing staff to launch its Terrace Stage outdoor series.
Leading lady E. Faye Butler returns to the Asolo Rep stage where she delivered her tour-de-force performance as Queenie in Show Boat in 2013. A recipient of nine Jeffs and two Helen Hayes Awards, Butler is a celebrated performer whose work has been seen across the country, including at the Kennedy Center and the Shakespeare Theatre Company, where she recently performed as a scene-stealing cast member in James Baldwin’s The Amen Corner.
Fannie is a virtual history lesson of the Southern Civil Rights era that chronicles the life and times of the 20th child of a sharecropper who dropped out of school after the 6th grade to pick cotton and help her family survive. A late-blooming activist, she attended at the age of 44 a 1962 Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) meeting where for the first time in her life she heard someone say: “You have the right to vote!”
Although Fannie is not a musical, the one-woman play weaves in 14 freedom songs that Hamer said gave her the courage to testify and earn extra money singing with other student activists such as Bernice Johnson Reagon, a student leader from Albany, Georgia, who joined SNCC in the 1960s and many Washingtonians know as a founder of Sweet Honey and the Rock.
In a 2006 interview with WGBH in Boston, Butler said, “One of the first things that’s important when you think about freedom songs and the Civil Rights Movement is to not actually think of freedom songs as if they were created strategically by the Movement. Like the collective breath of the Movement, they were a natural outpouring, evidencing the life force of the fight for freedom.”
Music is central to the story of Hamer’s rise to leadership in cofounding the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, where she demanded recognition at the 1964 Democratic National Convention when Lyndon Baines Johnson preempted her TV coverage with an impromptu press conference.
“The President didn’t want to talk about his VP, but he silenced me,” she said while the words of “We Shall Not Be Moved” were sung and a giant graphic of LBJ hovered over Hamer as she defiantly testified at the convention! Projection designer Aaron Rhyne evoked the visual impact of the violent aura of the period, including the night-riding Klansman who fire-bombed Hamer’s home after she was kicked off the plantation and survived 16 drive-by shootings while in hiding.
Rhyne’s haunting images on the outdoor stage backdrop added a sweeping quality to the Freedom Summer period that included the assassination of Medger Evers in 1963 and the lynching of Emmett Till in Money, Mississippi, a decade earlier for allegedly whistling at a white woman. And on the vast lawn of the Asolo Rep was part of the engaging set that included oversized banners and signs with the phrase that Evers had printed on T-shirts— “Say No to Jim Crow”—the day he was murdered in his driveway.
Toward the end of her riveting performance, Butler invoked call-and-response congregational-style audience engagement by asking, “You white ladies, let’s make America keep its promise to make all men and women equal,” which got the biggest applause of the night. She finished the show with the words of “I’m on My Way to Freedom Land.”
Butler was backed by a three-piece band led by Musical Director and guitarist Felton Offard, who played an imposing secondary role as Hamer’s husband and protector, Perry Hamer. Offard was joined by St. Petersburg residents Vivian Welch on piano and Aaron Washington on drums and percussion, who added vocals and a rhythmic tapestry to the freedom songs that made them come alive.
After a final unsuccessful run for Congress in 1967, Fannie Lou Hamer turned her attention to Black poverty, housing, and food insecurity back in Mississippi. She created Freedom Farms, an agriculture and economic development project to support impoverished Black families. She died on the Ides of March in 1977 at the age of 59 in Mound Bayou, Mississippi.
Running Time: A little over an hour, with no intermission.
Fannie: The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer runs February 22–27 and March 1–3, 2021, at Asolo Rep, 5555 North Tamiami Trail, Sarasota, Florida. Tickets are available online.
E. Faye Butler speaks out on playing Fannie Lou Hamer right now interview by Sophia Howes
A challenge to theaters to reopen now—outdoors by Malcolm Lewis Barnes