Talk to longtime leading lady E. Faye Butler about playing civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer on the stage and the line between artist and character sometimes seems to mist. Like the late Hamer, Butler has some forthright feedback for people who don’t vote.
“If you choose not to vote, you choose not to have a voice, and in that case, I don’t want to hear your voice. You gave up your right to be in the conversation,” the powerhouse alto and multi-award-winning actor said.
Butler continues with a like-minded bit of dialogue from Cheryl West’s “Fannie Lou Hamer: Speak On It!,” a Goodman Theatre/Chicago Park District production opening Sept. 17 at Englewood’s Hamilton Park and continuing through Oct. 3 with free performances at parks throughout the city. It marks Goodman’s return to live theater, albeit, in a different forum.
“Let me tell you how [Fannie Lous] says it: ‘(I)f you don’t get busy and vote and be part of the solution, then get the hell outta my way, ‘cause you part of the problem,” Butler said.
“I didn’t think this a year ago when we started working on this, but what Fannie is doing is coming back to us,” Butler continued, script down. “She’s reminding us that it is our duty to get out there and vote.”
Butler plays Hamer in West’s 40-minute abridgement of her full-length play, “Fannie,” which was schedule to have a traditional run starting in early November at the Goodman. West wrote the part for Butler, whose more than 30-year career in theater has taken her all over the world, playing everyone from Dolly Levi to Ella Fitzgerald.
Born in 1917, Hamer learned she could vote at age 44, via the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a group formed in 1960 to give youth a voice in the civil rights movement. “That meeting changed my life,” she says in “Speak On It.”
Hamer spent the rest of her life spreading the gospel of the ballot box throughout the nation, enduring brutal beatings from the police as a result. In “Speak On It!,” Hamer recounts a 1963 attack that left her with lifelong kidney damage and a blood clot in her left eye. In the play, West underscores the scene with sounds of a harmonica wailing, under the smacks of a blackjack. Hamer died in 1977 at 59.
The Goodman’s outdoor production is the first post-COVID theatrical endeavor in Chicago authorized under all four unions commonly affiliated with live musical and dramatic productions: Actors Equity, IATSE (The International Alliance of Stage Employees), the SDC (Stage Directors and Choreographers Society), and the Musicians Guild.
Butler is taking the pressure in stride.
“Am I nervous about being the first show with all the unions on board? No. I’m nervous about our country,” she said.
She’ll be joined on stage by music director/multi-instrumentalist Felton Offard, the delivering a story thick with gospel music, spirituals and civil rights anthems. The Goodman is partnering with the League of Women Voters to register voters on-site as the show moves from neighborhood to neighborhood.
For director Godinez, a Cuban-American who arrived in the United States at 3, cancelling the show because of COVID was a blow to the heart.
“In April or so, we realized we were dreaming if we thought we’d be able to open a show in the theater as soon as November,” Godinez said. “That was heartbreaking. But then I thought shoot, man. Why don’t we get a truck and take the theater to the people since the people can’t come to us?”
He wound up with a trailer, which the Goodman distinctively “wrapped” with a massive photo of Hamer, her defiant fist skyward. The set unfolds like page in a pop-up book, defined by a backdrop of a photo of a teeming rally for civil rights, circa early 1960s. “Behind me, it’s 50, 60 years ago” said Butler. “In front of me, it’s the audience, 2020 And between the two is Fannie, speaking to us.”
Like Hamer, West’s great-great grandparents were sharecroppers. Now based in Seattle after growing up in Markham and earning her graduate degree from University of Illinois at Champaign/Urbana, the playwright believes in the urgency of Hamer’s story.
“I feel like right now, we’ve lost some hope. And when you lose hope, you start to feel helpless,” she said. “Fannie never allowed herself to feel helpless,” West said. “We don’t have time to wring out hands. Now is the time for artists to get busy. Whatever your gift is, now is the time to give it to the world because people need it. They need hope and inspiration.”
Butler finds both in Hamer’s life and words. Like Hamer, she has a message for those who are considering opting out of the election.
“I don’t want to hear anything about voting for the lesser of two evils,” Butler concluded. “That’s a lazy excuse. We’re always having to choose between the lesser of two evils. That’s what life is sometimes. That’s the difference between a donut and a croissant. You still gotta eat. Now get out there and vote.”
Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.