A powerful staging of one woman’s force in a civil rights movement performs at Seattle Rep through February 13. Leading performer E. Faye Butler and understudy Shaunyce Omar both shine, with different takes on the role.
Can’t nobody tell me I can’t move a mountain
when I’m willing to move it handful by handful.
How old were you when you first learned of your (eventual) right to vote?
Not when you cast your first ballot. Not when you turned old enough to exercise it. Not when you got it together enough to start reading up on the questions or candidates. No, when did you first learn that voting was a right you would, or could someday, have?
For Fannie Lou Hamer, that age was 44 years old, according to the new biographical play with music, Fannie: The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer, on now at Seattle Rep. And once she learned of that fundamental right, she was determined to exercise it.
Hamer was born in 1917 in Montgomery County, Mississippi, the youngest of 20 children. What she lacked in formal education and position (“that sharecroppin’ woman,” as some described her dismissively), she made up for in grit, faith, and a fire that burned for justice. As she explains it in Fannie, at that time her Mississippi town was 70 percent Black, with “100 percent White folks running everything.” And if voting was worth all that effort to keep Black people from exercising it, it must be a powerful thing indeed.
Formally, the Constitution granted Black people (or Black men, at least) the right to vote in 1868, when the 15th Amendment banned denial of that right based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Practically speaking, local and state governments just got more creative in denying the vote, and individuals (including law enforcement) backed it up with force. Among the formal methods: charging poll taxes, imposing rigorous literacy or constitutional knowledge tests, and exempting anyone whose ancestors could vote from the added requirements (through “grandfather clauses”).
Fannie skims through some of these formal structures. But it focuses more intently, and effectively, on the tools of terror and violence that beat down, targeted, and “made examples of” Black people (and sometimes allied White people) for asserting their rights, through so-called offenses like marching against racially motivated murders or attempting to register to vote.
A particularly wrenching scene in Fannie has Hamer describing a merciless beating in jail, leaving her battered with injuries that stuck with her a lifetime. Adding insult: after a White cop threatened them into it, two Black prisoners administered most of the blows.
This is disturbing enough in a play. But it’s quite another level to remember this actually happened to the 45-year-old Hamer, in 1963; and that she never fully recovered from her injuries inflicted in that cell. As a dramatic work grounded in fact, Fannie illustrates, in sometimes graphic detail, that voting rights were not won with a court case or a flick of the pen in orderly legislative halls. While much of the show is full of warmth, musicality, and awe, some parts are downright horrific.
In the face of repeated, unimaginable loss, Hamer remains steadfast. And this is where the music factors most importantly into the performance; it’s her song that gives her the faith to endure and the courage to fight on. While this theme is woven throughout, it’s most tangible in a civil rights song (“Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round”) repeated through the performance. As Hamer takes center stage marching to the chorus, her song drives her march forward, and her march punctuates the song.
Ain’t gonna let nobody
Turn me ’round
Turn me ’round
Turn me ’round
Ain’t gonna let nobody
Turn me round
I’m gonna keep on walkin’
Keep on talkin’
Marchin’ into freedom land
The staging in Fannie (directed by Henry Godinez, music direction by Felton Offard) is about as good as it gets, with dramatic elements (light, sound, scenic design) coming together to tell the story without overpowering or distracting it.
There are a lot of threads woven into Fannie‘s tale — personal, local, and national stages — and this presentation of them manages to keep the story clear, on track, and engaging. Likewise, the band — Morgan E., Timothy Davis, with Chic Street Man and Felton Offard alternating performances — provides unobtrusive sound throughout, unless effectuating the drama (a powerfully reverberating bass line mimics a potent thunderclap at a period of momentous change) or ramping up during the musical performances.
A solo show about a civil rights icon needs a potent performer, and Fannie has two powerhouses in lead E. Faye Butler and local understudy Shaunyce Omar.
I had the chance to experience both performers: Butler at opening, and Omar at a subsequent performance. They’re both excellent, and they both bring a slightly different read to the role.
Butler, who originated the role and has toured the show throughout its rolling world premiere, quickly engages the audience with an easy familiarly, elicits laughter at defined moments, and is visibly confident in the role. She earned a thunderous ovation.
A Seattle-based understudy with a few scheduled performances, Omar also earned a raucous standing ovation, while employing a slightly different take on the role. Where Butler portrayed Hamer with a confidence that rarely wavered, Omar’s Hamer depicted a courage that came from the heart. Both performers are tremendous. And what a sweet, sweet problem to have an understudy like Shaunyce Omar.
I’m always a little reluctant going into biopic-style, music-oriented plays, of which there seem to be many of late. Will the narrative be a strong one, and one that feels human, or come across more like pieced together factoids? Will the music help tell the story, rather than feeling dropped-in or gimmicky? And, no matter how strong the script (or not), will the central performer be good enough to carry the role?
For the Rep’s production of Fannie, the answer on all fronts is yes.
Fannie: The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer runs through 2/13 at Seattle Rep (Seattle Center/Mercer side). Tickets $24-$98, available here. Accessibility notes: restrooms are multi-stall and gendered; single-stall, gender-neutral restroom available near main ones; theatre and common areas are wheelchair accessible. Financial accessibility note: Seattle Rep is now offering a limited number of PWYC tickets for all performances; see policies and info here.
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.