Title: Fannie: The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer. Playwright: Cheryl L. West
At: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St. Tickets: $15-$45. Runs through: November 21
The custom nowadays is for shows to finish their rehearsal periods with a series of pre-opening performances designed to fine-tune delicate actor-audience interactions. This joint Goodman Theatre/Seattle Repertory Company's production of Cheryl L. West's biodrama recounting the life and times of fiery civil-rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer honed its in-person skills under sweltering conditions in Chicago's city parks during a summer of unexpected isolation, on a portable stage affixed to a truck and viewed by spectators of an age to recallperhaps to even have shared inthe events described therein. The results are manifest.
Sure, we can read, in books or online, about the contributions of the uneducated Mississippi sharecropper who never looked back after first learning, at the overdue age of 44, that she was entitled, as an American citizen, to VOTE. The distance lent us by hindsight renders inadequate mere screenings of grainy sepia-tinted videotapes depicting the 1964 Democratic Convention, during which she addressed an all-white delegation in a seminal speech, describing atrocities that white racists inflicted upon her fellow citizens of color in such vivid and horrifying detail that the ratification of the long-delayed Voting Rights Act was ensured.
The chronicle that West relates is no talking-heads history lesson, though, but an unbroken stream of informative input less concerned with recitation of facts than replication of an experience. From the minute E. Faye Butler, as the fiery Hamer, bursts through the doors at the rear of the auditoriumthe one that we are sitting into stride up to the microphone at the conference table and declare that she WILL be heard, we are transported back more than a half-century to those turbulent years.
How does West and director Henry Godinez accomplish this dazzling transformation? To begin, our contentious mentor proclaims, "I always sing at my meetings. [There's] nothing like a song to find your truth in someone else's story." Channeling the power of what has been called the most emotional of the arts, the thematic backscore sustained by a three-piece orchestra stitches the dramatic action together into a continuous aural soundscape whose relentless progress ceases only in the moments when Hamer orders them to be silent.
The musiciansDeonte Brantley, Felton Offard and Morgan E. (on opening night)occasionally assume speaking roles, as do their instruments (not always in friendly tones, either), with additional vocal assistance from an audience well-versed in the litany of African-American oratory and thus needing no instruction in witnessing with an amen, or a hand-clap, or all the words to rallying anthems like "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around." Not for an instant, however, does our attention waver from the formidable Butler, whose supple voice not only bends to the gospel rhythms of the pulpit and the nasal drawls of her "Dixiecrat" opponents, but swells with heroic power to forge a portrayal that sends us home united in martial fervor.