Few things in life are as fun as getting E. Faye Butler talking about a character she is playing.
Actually, strike that. The venerable Chicago and East Coast star does not so much play characters as immerse herself in them.
She was that way with Mama Rose of “Gypsy” at Porchlight Music Theatre and the results were spectacular. Now she has turned her attention to Fannie Lou Hamer. And to see what she is doing with “Fannie Lou Hamer: Speak On It!,” you’ll have to catch the new mobile stage cruising the neighborhoods of Chicago with gas pumped by the Goodman Theatre.
And you’ll need to bring your lawn chair to a Chicago park for what will be, to the best of my knowledge, the first Actors’ Equity-sanctioned Chicago production since the pandemic closures of last March.
“Fannie is an unsung hero of the civil rights movement who got lost in the shuffle,” Butler said over the phone this week, as she unspooled Hamer’s biography a mile a minute. “We forget about the women who also fought in that battle. She had a sixth-grade education. But she had the power of magnitude that drew people to her and she made the movement the passion of her life. She would stand up and speak from the heart.”
Hamer, who lived from 1917 to 1977, grew up desperately poor as the 20th child of Mississippi sharecroppers. Her relative anonymity compared to some of the other leaders of the movement perhaps also flows from her relatively short lifespan (she suffered from long-declining health due to contracting polio as a child and later being sterilized without her knowledge), and her age at the time of the movement. When the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee found her in her home town of Mound Bayou, Miss., and pointed out her right to vote, Hamer already was in her mid-40s. She would go to become one of the oldest members of that committee and would later march with Andrew Young and Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1966 March Against Fear in Mississippi. In 1968, Hamer spoke on behalf of the Alabama delegation at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, although the Democratic Party made attempts to prevent her speech from being widely broadcast to Americans.
Her most famous quote? “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.” It is inscribed on her tombstone.
There are several books about Hamer, including Kay Mills' “The Little Light of Mine,” which appears to have been optioned for a film, but she has largely gone unnoticed to date by Hollywood and Netflix.
“Fannie” is penned by Cheryl L. West, a veteran Seattle-based writer I’ve known and admired for a quarter century or more, and whose past works include “Pullman Porter Blues,” “Jar the Floor” “Puddin’ ‘n Pete” and the Chicago-set “Holiday Heart,” which I remember reviewing at the Cleveland Playhouse, many moons ago. Many of West’s plays have been on historical themes.
“It is such a blessing,” West said in a telephone interview Tuesday, “to honor this incredible woman, to bring her to my home city of Chicago, and do so at a time we all need hope and to be inspired.”
The show on offer now is essentially a free, outdoor, 40-minute cutting of a one-woman show that was originally intended to be 90 minutes (that longer production still is on the docket for whenever indoor theater returns to the City of Chicago). West said the Chicago Park District had imposed other rules, including nixing the Hamer character teaching the audience her favorite freedom songs, collective singing being discouraged in the COVID era, even outdoors. That said, Butler will sing the songs with the audience at a safe distance. There are to be capacity controls in the roped-off areas in front of the stage, but people also will be able to visit the park as normal and, from afar, watch as little or as much of the performance as they wish.
“I am thinking of it as being very in the spirit of Fannie,” West said, “a woman who knocked on a lot of doors, who believed very much in the United States and who believed that together we could do so many great things if we could get rid of this division based on things that don’t really matter.”
“We want people to be involved,” West said. “We want this to be theater for the people.”
West also said that census takers will be present alongside the show, and there will be a chance to register to vote (a Goodman Theatre spokesperson said the League of Women Voters is one of the partners in the project). I hope to be there Friday at Abbott Park. Other neighborhoods on the schedule include West Rogers Park, Bronzeville, Portage Park, Austin and North Lawndale.
The Goodman has not previously done anything similar to this.
Butler said that the whole thing already was giving her goosebumps.
“That bus will be on the Dan Ryan,” she said. “It will going up and down the Kennedy (Expressway). And everyone will be able to read the Fannie Lou Hamer quote on the side.”
It reads: “Unless you get up and do something about injustice, not just for you but for your neighbor, too, ain’t nothing gonna change.”
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.
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