“Nobody’s free until everybody’s free,” Fannie Lou Hamer told a crowd in 1971 at the National Women’s Political Caucus. E. Faye Butler, in a rousing performance, used her stirring voice to channel Hamer, one of the most significant voting rights activists in United States history. “Fannie: the Life and Music of Fannie Lou Hamer” was part of a rolling world premiere on the Asolo Repertory Terrace Stage in collaboration with the Goodman Theater and Seattle Repertory. The show opened against all odds at a time when live theater is struggling amidst the pandemic; and temperature checks and outdoor seating continue to be necessary safety precautions.
In an emotional speech on opening night, Michael Donald Edwards, Asolo Repertory Artistic Director, talked about the difficulties of the past year on the arts and the fact that the intrepid theater has managed to open a show, one of the only original theater pieces premiering at a time while Broadway remains shuttered.
Butler fully embodied Hamer as she sang the civil rights leader’s favorite gospel songs interspersed with her wise words about the depth and breadth of the country’s original sin of white supremacy. The holistic view that we are all interconnected and our freedom is interdependent is modern indeed. Hamer bravely soldiered on in the name of freedom despite death threats, shootings, the death of a child, and brutal beatings at the hands of law enforcement. This former sharecropper gave of herself, body, mind, and soul to make the world more just and more free. There were several very difficult scenes, particularly in the jail cell as Hamer recounted the manner in which she was treated by prisoners and wardens. Butler captured the gruesome treatment that Hamer and far too many other black bodies have suffered ultimately giving rise to the black lives matter movement. While Hamer would surely be thrilled to see the election of our first black female Vice President Kamala Harris, she would shudder to learn of what happened to Sandra Bland and Breona Taylor, two black women who died after police encounters not unlike her own.
Dr. Christina Greer, a Fordham political science professor, chose Hamer as the leader she wished to honor for black history month on MSNBC’s Morning Joe earlier this week. She emphasized how important Hamer’s story is for a country that is struggling, in particular this year, to protect voting rights in largely black and brown communities. Stacey Abrams, founder of Fair Fight Action created to combat voter suppression, is being touted for helping to register 800,000 new voters in Georgia; and Abrams stands on the shoulders of great civil rights leaders like Hamer whose faith in the power of the vote led her to persevere in the registration of black voters as an organizer with the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee even before the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Asolo Rep has depicted this important period previously in the show “All the Way” in 2016, and Hamer figured briefly but very memorably in that production (played by the great Tyla Abercrumbie). In “Fannie,” Hamer was deservedly front and center of the production, which is crucial to make sure that we honor and celebrate this tremendous trailblazer, who may be less well known to audiences.
This year alone has brought much-needed attention to the centrality of essential workers who are very often underpaid and undervalued and the importance that poll workers who ensure that every vote is counted and even recounted several times can be to maintaining our democratic system. Hamer’s life, which included not only her work registering voters but also founding the Freedom Farm Cooperative, to provide food, jobs, and housing for black farmers, gives a roadmap for the trajectory that we need as we work toward creating a more equitable future.
Furthermore, the most consequential pandemic of our lifetimes has given people around the world the chance to consider a great many issues that they may not have had the time or inclination to consider. Conversations about economic inequality, grave health disparities, and racial injustice have been galvanized in wake of the horrific death of George Floyd. This has caused us all to re-examine our understanding of the framework through which race can impact nearly every aspect of our lives.
Just a few hours after the premiere of “Fannie,” on Saturday Night Live, host Rege Jean Page, a black British actor who played the Duke in Netflix’s “Bridgerton” said in his opening monologue, “I’m genuinely so happy that the show has connected with so many people during lockdown, especially people who do not normally get to see themselves as romantic leads on television.” Also at that time, we were closing in on the grim milestone of 500,000 deaths in the United States from COVID-19, which disproportionately impacted African-Americans. This has been a year of reckoning. “Fannie” meets the moment by shining a light on just how long and arduous the journey has been to get to where we are, as well as how long the struggle will be to reach where we still need to be.