“Fannie: The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer” — ★ ★ ★ ½
With voting rights under attack and the Freedom to Vote Act hanging in the balance, Goodman Theatre’s “Fannie: The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer” is as timely as today’s headlines — its call for suffrage as consequential now as it was then.
A sense of urgency underscores Cheryl L. West’s play-with-music about 1960s voting and civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, running as part of a rolling premiere in association with Seattle Repertory Theatre and Asolo Repertory Theatre. That urgency was evident the moment the lights dimmed and the galvanizing E. Faye Butler (who plays the titular character), strode through the audience to the stage.
The time is 1964. The occasion is the Democratic National Convention, where the sharecropper’s daughter speaks about the brutality she and others endured attempting to register to vote, and argues representatives from the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party she co-founded should be recognized as convention delegates.
E. Faye Butler returns to the Goodman Theatre in a richly emotional performance as the titular civil rights activist in Cheryl L. West’s play-with-music “Fannie: The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer.” – Courtesy of Liz Lauren
Punctuated by gospel favorites including “This Little Light of Mine,” “I Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round” and “I’m On My Way to Freedom,” the 70-minute show chronicles the awakening of an activist who realized, at age 44, she had the right to vote and devoted the rest of her life to helping secure that right for others.
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Along the way we learn about the brutality, indignity and oppression Fannie and her fellow activists endured, as well as the personal tragedies she suffered. Most importantly, in a play that wears its heart on its sleeve, we witness the indomitable spirit of a leader who reminds the audience that “truth ain’t never been the enemy unless you’re in the business of worshipping a lie” and admonishes them to “vote bad people out and justice in.”
In a Goodman trailer, director Henry Godinez described “Fannie” — which emerged during Goodman’s 2019 New Stages Festival — as “the little play that could.” Scheduled for the 2020-2021 season, but canceled in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, an abridged version starring Butler toured Chicago parks last summer. According to Godinez, that sparked interest from theaters around the country, with the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., Florida’s Asolo Repertory Theatre and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival staging Godinez’s production with Butler in the title role.
In 2020, an abridged version of Cheryl L. West’s “Fannie: The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer” toured Chicago parks. Now the production, starring E. Faye Butler as the titular activist, has come home to Chicago’s Goodman Theatre. – Courtesy of Liz Lauren
Ably supported by drummer Deonte Brantley, pianist/organist Morgan E., music director/guitarist Felton Offard (through Oct. 31) and guitarist Michael Ross (Nov. 3-21), the show belongs to Butler. She commands attention from the center of Collette Pollard’s set, which — with help from Rasean Davonte Johnson’s projections — serves as convention hall, church and jail cell. The latter is accomplished with help from Jason Lynch’s moody lighting. Also deserving mention is Victoria Deiorio’s sound design, which augments a particularly nightmarish moment during which Hamer recalls an attack from the Ku Klux Klan.
As for Butler, there aren’t enough adjectives to describe the nine-time Joseph Jefferson Award-winner’s finely honed performance. From the jubilant “This Little Light of Mine,” which evolves into an audience singalong, to the wrenching “I’ve Been Changed” — where Butler’s anguished growl comes from the depths of her soul to reveal Fannie’s deep sorrow and even deeper resolve — there is not one false note.
For a play that emphasizes perseverance and the power music has to sustain and inspire, Godinez and Goodman could not have found a better messenger than E. Faye Butler.