Fannie Lou Hamer was an activist whose work in the fields of civil, voting, and women’s rights had an enormous impact, yet her story is far too rarely told. In Fannie: The Life and Music of Fannie Lou Hamer, playwright Cheryl L. West paints a vivid picture of the life of this remarkable woman. Currently in production at the Goodman Theatre, Fannie is a show that, like its namesake, is small but powerful.
It’s impossible not to love E. Faye Butler as Fannie Lou Hamer from the moment she enters the space. Butler is unbelievably charismatic, winning her audience over instantly with her high energy and absolute commitment to every one of her acting choices. From the beginning of the show, the illusion of the fourth wall is shattered as Fannie directly addresses her audience, inviting them to sing and clap along with her. This interactivity worked well with the format of the show, which is a one-woman performance in which the historical struggle to end racism connects directly to our current struggle toward the same goal. The feeling is less “sit and listen while someone tells her story” and more “come along for the ride while Fannie tells you the truth in story and song.”
The music blends seamlessly into the action. This performance reminded me of the old adage that when your feelings get too big to talk, sing. Fannie acknowledges this in the script, pointing out in moments of fear or tension that a song is just what’s needed. The result is that the music feels like a natural extension of the speaking, with no awkward transitions from one to the other. The play is also surprisingly funny for a script that deals with such heavy subjects. There are certainly dark moments: a scene in which Fannie is beaten is particularly brutal to watch. Still, the overall tone of the show is one of sitting down to listen to a friend talk about their life, rife with laughter and noises of agreement from the audience.
The play is nice and compact, clocking in at just seventy minutes. It doesn’t drag by including every detail of Fannie’s life, but instead gets to the heart of her story and the way it resonates with contemporary issues. Lighting design by Jason Lynch leads to some impactful moments, such as when the stage goes mostly dark during a scene in which a church is attacked. Projections by Rasean Davonte Johnson add a visually intriguing element, representing at times the literal backdrop of Fannie’s world and at other times what was on her mind, like the faces of young activists killed in pursuit of the cause. Sound design by Victoria Deiorio helps create the emotional atmosphere of the show, especially in the aforementioned beating scene.
Ultimately, Fannie is a play about the past that serves as a call to action for the present. Fannie asks her audience to carry on her work, fighting the good fight to ensure that women’s, civil, and voting rights make the advancements they so desperately need to make. The tone is ultimately inspirational in a way that feels absolutely genuine, and that’s something our world urgently needs right now.
Dates: October 15-November 21, 2021
Location: Goodman Theatre, 170 N Dearborn Street, Chicago, IL
Tickets: Starting at $15. Now on sale at the Goodman Theatre website or by calling 312.443.3800.
All photos by Liz Lauren.