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E. Faye Butler conveys powerful tale through words — and music — in ‘Fannie Lou Hamer’ story

In “Fannie (The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer),” the songs take us beyond the facts of Hamer’s life into something deeper about what steeled her. 

E. Faye Butler (Fannie Lou Hamer) in Fannie (The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer) by Cheryl L. West, directed by Henry Godinez at Goodman Theatre, October 15-November 14, 2021. Photo by Liz Lauren.
E. Faye Butler stars as 1960s civil rights and voting rights advocate Fannie Lou Hamer in “Fannie (The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer)” directed by Henry Godinez at the Goodman Theatre.
Liz Lauren

In 1964, at the Democratic National Convention, a woman new to the national stage spoke to a committee soon after Martin Luther King Jr. The committee meeting, about the seating of a controversial all-white delegation from Mississippi, was being televised live.

Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer was a sharecropper from the Mississippi Delta, an area that has been labeled as the most Southern place on Earth. She was the youngest of 20 children, had spent nearly all of her life on plantations, and spoke with a type of drawl that made it clear she hadn’t been polished for the masses. Her authenticity, her straightforwardness, her readily apparent resoluteness gave her a special presence.

But when she started to tell her story of trying and failing to register to vote, the cameras suddenly cut away. President Lyndon B. Johnson had called a spontaneous press conference at the White House, just to pull the focus from Hamer’s testimony. The gambit didn’t go unnoticed, and Hamer’s testimony was replayed widely. Fannie Lou Hamer became a nationally known figure because the president of the United States would rather the country not know her name.

Cheryl L. West’s one-person play with music, “Fannie (The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer),” starts with this very scene of interruption and newfound fame. And as she goes back in time and through the story of Hamer’s life over the next intermission-less 70 minutes, West expresses quite clearly that her subject was as brave and resolute as one can imagine a human to be.

What takes this beyond a more traditional one-person play is the frequent incorporation of music. As Hamer says early on, “Nothing like a song to find your truth in someone else’s story.” The songs take us beyond the facts of Hamer’s life into something deeper about what steeled her.

In West’s depiction, music is there when Hamer most needs it. When a white police officer pulls over a bus of protesters, who become silent in fear, Hamer sings to summon courage. When she’s beaten terribly for her efforts, leaving permanent damage, she sings to summon resolution and love. When her daughter passes away from an ailment partly due to malnutrition, and Hamer feels riddled not just with grief but with guilt, she sings to summon self-forgiveness.

The music, a mix of spirituals and protest songs, also makes the magnificent E. Faye Butler the perfect performer to play Fannie Lou Hamer. Actually, she would be pretty darn perfect even if there were no music, but it’s the singing that ultimately carries the most inspirational moments of this show.

Accompanied by three onstage musicians, Butler moves fluidly between speech and song, helped by lighting designer Jason Lynch. The model here is much less musical theater and more church service, with music as punctuation and expression of aspirational emotion. The band members — Deonte Brantley, Morgan E. and Felton Offard — provide occasional encouragement as well as background vocals, and the music direction from Offard invests the sound with ’60s-ish jazz appropriate to the story.

Everything here under Henry Godinez’s direction — including the set (Collete Pollard), costumes (Michael Alan Stein), and projections (Rassean Davonte Johnson) — is intended to serve the focus on Butler’s Fannie, which is exactly as it should be, and Godinez is careful not to over-produce the theatrical elements that likely weren’t available when an abridged version of this piece was performed in Chicago parks last year during the extended shutdown of indoor theaters.

There are elements I wished there were more of. We don’t get much about Hamer’s early life, even though there’s a collection of Hamer recordings entitled “Songs My Mother Taught Me.” And we’re not ever quite led to understand what made LBJ so concerned about Hamer, that she didn’t present the image of the civil rights movement that politicians wanted to project. Butler presents a polished depiction of a woman known for presenting plainspoken groundedness.

That said, Butler conveys Hamer’s story with great clarity and power. She captures how Hamer’s learning about her right to vote at the age of 44 compelled her to act. She puts deep conviction behind Hamer’s stalwart beliefs in freedom as well as her economic idealism — she founded a successful communal farm later in her life. She helps us see the weight and consequences of the responsibilities she took on, in particular, and poignantly, the exhaustion.

After all, Martin Luther King is most famous for saying “I have a dream.” Fannie Lou Hamer’s most famous quote is the one on her gravestone: “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.”