Lyndon Johnson is said to have called her an “ignorant niggra.” In Fannie Lou Hamer: Speak on It!, E. Faye Butler brings this so-called “ignorant niggra” – Fannie Lou Hamer – to vibrant, embarrassing and encouraging life. The performance is riveting and subtle.
The purported purpose of this production (as mouthed by Fannie Lou Hamer who in the play is speaking at a voter registration rally) is to encourage more people to vote in the upcoming election in an effort to put into office people who will respect non-white human beings, non-male human beings, non-wealthy human beings – as human beings. This is a performance that is “singing to the choir.” But that is the point. In the digital program, Arena Stage Artistic Director Molly Smith refers to it as a “call to arms” and Fannie carries a sign that reads “To Hope Is To Vote.” It is the instilling of hope when things seem hopeless – in today’s voters and the aspiring voters of yesterday – that the words and presence of Fannie Lou Hamer aimed to do.
Fannie Lou Hamer lived in the days before “Black is Beautiful”, Wakanda, or “Black Lives Matter.” And it is clear that unlike many disappointed citizens of the 21st Century USA, Ms. Hamer and other Black and white folks in the mid-20th century had no illusions about the intentions of the former enslavers and current holders of power to play fairly or civilly. What Ms. Hamer and the other freedom fighters trusted in and fought for were the rights written into the Constitution of the United States.
What this production emphasizes is the need for – I don’t know what to call it – ‘resilience’ is a fashionable term we use when faced with a hard place. But in America’s refusal to live up to the ideals of its Constitution that word doesn’t seem to be quite enough to describe what Fannie Lou Hamer brings to the table and urges us to embrace.
‘Faith’ might be a better word. In the face of humiliation and death-promoting, body-destroying beatings, she continued to rise, and show up and speak encouragement to and smile to her people. These were people who, already having been humiliated, she now wanted to rise up and register to vote and then to vote. And in her “ignorance,” she continued to pray and to sing.
There is much singing in this show (accompanied by the blues-and-spiritual-steeped guitar and voice of Felton Offard). The audience/congregation is gently and enthusiastically encouraged to participate. “Nothing like a song to find your truth in someone else’s story,” Ms. Hamer says at the beginning of the show. And then, as she leads us to pull ourselves together in the face of abject, unabashed terrorism (expressed both in the 1960s and now) she notes: “All I knew to get us back on one accord was to sing my favorite song: ‘This Little Light of Mine.’”
There was an audience that was seated for this performance which was held outdoors at the Wharf in southwest Washington D.C.. But there were also passersby on the pier who stopped to listen and sing. In Fannie Lou Hamer’s songs and words – and in our participation – we witness and experience the effect of faith in action: the feeling of what it means to move based on the evidence of things not seen. In Fannie Lou Hamer: Speak On It!, E. Faye Butler gives us a Ms. Hamer who spreads hope and faith as far as her voice can reach.
Fannie Lou Hamer Speak on It Adapted by Cheryl L. West from her play Fannie. Directed by Henry Godinez. Music Direction and Arrangements by Felton Offard. Sound Design by David Naugton. Produced by Arena Stage . Reviewed by Gregory Ford.
This performance run 50 minutes and is being presented outdoors on the Transit Pier Floating Stage at the Wharf in southwest Washington, D.C. All attendees must be masked. Seating and standing spaces are in accordance with CDC recommendations. Performances daily through Friday, Oct 30, 2020. Reservations.