Civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer focus of Asolo Rep premiere

You may have conducted many interviews over the years to sponsor various theater projects, but there is clearly something different about actress E. Faye Butler and director Henry Godinez than what they said about Cheryl L. West’s “Fannie: The Music and That Life of Fannie Lou Hamer “Speak”, which premieres this week at the Asolo Repertory Theater.

It’s something of a passion project and they want to make sure more people know about the civil rights activist who used music and her words to get people to rallies from prominent leaders of the movement, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The audience that saw the production of Robert Schenkkan’s “All the Way” in 2016 learned a little about Hamer.

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West, whose play “Jar the Floor” was presented by the Westcoast Black Theater Troupe in 2010, wrote “Fannie” especially for butlers.

“When our playwright started writing a story and focused on Fannie Lou Hamer, it was really inextricably linked to her writing for E. Faye Butler,” said Godinez, resident art associate at the Goodman Theater in Chicago who developed it play with Seattle Rep. ”They worked together on Cheryl’s ‘Pullman Porter Blues,’ which we did at Goodman. Cheryl had an expression on her face that said, “I’ll write something for you,” and so it came about. “

This is a biographical piece with music, a one woman show that allows Butler to delve deeper into what she thinks is an important story and character, and also to sing.

Fannie Lou Hamer, a leader of the Democratic Freedom Party, speaks to the Accrediting Committee of the National Democratic Convention in Atlantic City on August 22, 1964 about the accreditation of the largely African-American group as a Mississippi delegation to the convention.  instead of the all-white state delegation.

“That’s how she got people to rally. She sang, ”said Butler. “She wasn’t a singer, but she sang with a passion and ferocity that made people feel safe and comfortable. She sang songs she knew, songs of freedom, spirituals, gospel songs, songs that we know and that we keep singing. “

Butler is a singer with an authoritative voice first heard in Sarasota on Asolo Rep’s 2013 production of Show Boat, in which she played Queenie.

“Just by watching her on Show Boat, you can tell that E. Faye Butler is a force of nature and a powerhouse in the theater,” said Godinez.

Butler describes Hamer as the opening attraction for the more prominent men who led the civil rights movement. “She would choose Dr. King open up and piss people off. They would bring Fannie out and she was telling the truth. “

Godinez said the music was a comfort to Hamer.

“It was her stone,” he said. “She has suffered so much persecution, so much terrible physical abuse. She was beaten by authorities in prison cells within an inch of her life. If she hadn’t sung, she wouldn’t have survived. “

Henry Godinez, resident art associate at the Goodman Theater in Chicago, is the director of the premiere

The director said that when Hamer was “on the verge of feeling hopeless but also feeling anger, the need for revenge and hatred, the music kept her calm. She was a woman of deep faith not only in God but also in her country. She was a patriot, an American, and a devout believer in God. “

Hamer, who died in 1977 at the age of 59, was a co-founder and vice-chair of the Freedom Democratic Party, which she represented at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, to which Lyndon Johnson was nominated. She was also the organizer of the Mississippi Freedom Summer and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

Music was a common thread through her life.

“She loved it when young white college kids came from the north. She loved learning her songs and she taught them a song, “Butler said. “If she didn’t have a crowd, she would just start singing, and suddenly people would just come to see what was going on.”

Playwright Cheryl L. West is the author of Fannie: The Life and Music of Fannie Lou Hamer.

The production, presented outdoors on Asolo Rep’s Terrace Stage, is considered a rolling world premiere before it can be shown at the Goodman and Seattle Rep theaters, which have been developing it for about two years.

Butler said when she got a call from Michael Donald Edwards, Asolo Rep’s Producing Artistic Director and realized there was a safe place to showcase “Fannie,” they worked out arrangements.

West’s game was supposed to open at Goodman last fall, but the coronavirus pandemic has overturned those plans. Instead, Godinez, West and Butler worked together on a 50-minute version of the show, which they trailered to parks in the Chicago area. “We did at least 10 performances. And then we put it in association with Arena Stage in Washington DC and did it on the wharf for two weeks before the election, ”Butler said. “Like Fannie Lou Hamer, we’ve traveled across the country.”

The Sarasota audience will be the first to see the full 90-minute version of the one-person show since its inception.

“This is a great piece at the time,” said Butler. “We have to sit down and listen to each other. This is another opportunity for the Asolo Rep staff to learn about a heroine, an unsung hero who has done so much for this country, not just for the blacks, but for the country as well. We have to shake hands with our neighbors again and look out for one another. We lost that feeling in this nation. That’s what she stood for. “

‘Fannie: The Life and Music of Fannie Lou Hamer’

By Cheryl L. West. Directed by Henry Godinez. Runs Tuesday through March 3 on the outdoor deck at the Asolo Repertory Theater, 5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. Tickets start at $ 25 for grass pitches and $ 40 for chairs. More information:

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