A free 40-minute play about Fannie Lou Hamer will be staged on the West Side in October, a month out from a presidential election that features many of the battlefronts — from voter intimidation and suppression to economic inequality — on which Hamer famously fought.
In 1964, Hamer, the leader of the Mississippi-based Freedom Democratic Party, shared her life’s story with the Nation’s Jerry DeMuth.
A native of Ruleville, Miss., Hamer came from a family of sharecroppers who lived under the thumb of Jim Crow.
“The family would pick fifty-sixty bales of cotton a year, so my father decided to rent some land. He bought some mules and a cultivator,” Hamer told DeMuth.
“We were doin’ pretty well. He even started to fix up the house real nice and had bought a car. Then our stock got poisoned. We knowed this white man had done it. He stirred up a gallon of Paris green with the feed. When we got out there, one mule was already dead. The other two mules and the cow had their stomachs all swelled up. It was too late to save ’em.
“That poison knocked us right back down flat. We never did get back up again,” she recalled. “That white man did it just because we, were gettin’ somewhere. White people never like to see Negroes get a little success. All of this stuff is no secret in the state of Mississippi.”
Hamer consistently faced death threats and intimidation during her long with to win voting rights for Black Mississippians. She herself didn’t vote until she was 44 years old.
“Speaking for every African-American living under the South’s Jim Crow rules,” DeMuth wrote, “Fannie Lou Hamer says she is sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
Hamer’s indefatigable spirit is the source of “Fannie Lou Hamer, Speak On It!” — a 40-minute play produced by the Goodman Theatre in collaboration with the Chicago Park District.
The play is being staged at eight parks throughout the city. The first performance happened on Sept. 18 at Robert Abbot Park on the South Side.
The play will be performed at Austin Town Hall Park, 5610 W. Lake St., 6 p.m., on Oct. 1. And at Homan Square, 3559 W. Arthington St. , 6 p.m., on Oct. 2.
E. Faye Butler, who stars as Hamer, said in a recent interview with Quenna L. Barrett, the associate director of education and engagement at Goodman Theater, said that much of Hamer’s legacy is wrapped up in her fight for voting rights.
“”She wanted everyone to know, you have the right and people have died so you can vote,” Butler said.
Butler added that the play focuses on Hamer’s brilliant ability to inspire others to action through her charismatic persona at rallies and protests.
“She was a freedom worker and she was a civil rights leader and she was an amazing singer, but not the kind of singer most people would expect,” Butler said. “She didn’t sing because she necessarily had a beautiful voice; it was the spirit of the song and the passion and that’s why so many people loved for her to be at rallies … She could turn a crowd out.”
Cheryl L. West, who wrote the play, said that she initially constructed the script to incorporate a high level of audience engagement. After the pandemic hit, however, she had to make some modifications.
“When this was first constructed, audience participation was part of the show, because it’s a rally,” West told Barrett.
West said that she had to axe the parts of the play that called for the audience to sing along with Hamer.
“I had to go through the script to take out all of those references,” she said.
But the essence of the play, Hamer’s spirit, remains, West said.
“The power of it is still intact,” she said. “The story is still there.”
West said that she hopes the play instructs how audiences live in the present.
“Learn from the past,” she said. “Learn from the challenges we had. Arm yourself. [Hamer’s] favorite prayer was, ‘I arm myself with God,’ so she didn’t have much fear.”
For more information, including special safety precautions due to COVID-19, visit GoodmanTheatre.org/SpeakOnIt.