On a cool September night, just as the sun began to set in beautiful Abbott Park on Chicago’s South Side, the utterly unstoppable actress E. Faye Butler set about giving voice to Fannie Lou Hamer, the former Mississippi sharecropper who became a moral leader of the civil rights movement by insisting on her right to speak that which she knew to be true.
“I’m Fannie Lou Hamer,” Butler said as she rushed from behind the Goodman Theatre trailer, charged with transporting this outdoor show around Chicago’s parks this fall, “and I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
“How about y’all?”
“Y’all” is a relative terms these days, especially given how strictly the Chicago Park District has imposed social-distancing rules on audiences within its jurisdictions. At first glance, the crowd gathered in Abbott Park near the stage looked sparse, but the 45-minute touring production was, in fact, operating at full capacity in its designated area. This meant Butler, starring in the first Chicago show sanctioned by the Actors' Equity Association union, had to work to pull in audience members huddled in little clumps, but spread over hundreds of feet.
This did not prove to be any kind of a problem.
Butler’s fiery monologue, oft-underscored on live electric blues guitar by the musician Felton Offard, had such power and potency, it echoed and reverberated with sharp cracks, its constituent words bouncing off the shuttered playground, the field house, the empty baseball diamond.
The Chicago-born playwright Cheryl L. West, who knows strong Mississippi women in her own family, has penned the piece, which includes songs from the protest movement, as a kind of Homeric return from the grave by a woman who died in 1977, before she had even reached 60 years old.
Given that Hamer had only a sixth-grade education and did not even know she had a right to vote until she was 44, and happened to be visited personally by members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the brevity of her political life helps you put her astounding achievements in context.
The device also allows Hamer to comment on current affairs. “You got an election coming up,” went one staccato line Friday night, wherein Butler emphasized every syllable. “One that is way too important to ignore.”
The news of the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg broke about two-thirds of the way through the performance Friday. For anyone who could not resist the persistent vibration of their phone, this meant that the rest of the show, made up of Hamer’s words from years ago, had to be viewed through that emotive and relevant gauze. And for those who did not find out until afterwards, a clearly shocked Butler came back out on stage to deliver the sad September revelation to cries of surprise and sorrow, and to lead the audience in a prayer. It was that kind of evening.
But if unwelcome news came through digital devices, “Fannie Lou Hamer: Speak On It!,” which is directed by Henry Godinez, functioned Friday night as a reminder of the days when in-person testimony is what changed minds and brought about reform. To watch and think and feel for a few minutes in Abbott Park, and to listen to Butler sing the songs of the movement, was yet more evidence of the pernicious influence of social media on democracy.
Sadly, the rules meant that Butler’s famous voice could not lead the crowd in communal song, as West intended, and as Hamer often did. But Butler really is an ideal vessel for Hamer’s words: She is as unstinting and forceful as the material and its demands, but there is always a warm inclusivity to her acting, flowing easily in the sections of the piece where Hamer notes that racial inequity and oppression harms everyone. Therefore, she always insisted, its elimination is in service of, and beneficial to, all Americans.
Hamer made that point time and time again, insisting that she spoke for “anyone and everyone who needs freedom" and that everyone must be brought along “for the common good.”
She further said that the American flag was “drenched in the blood of my people," something else that she knew to be true.
And yet, she said, “I never gave up on the United States of America.”
“Fannie Lou Hamer, Speak on It!” is a shortened version of a longer piece intended to be staged at the Goodman Theatre when conditions allow, and is touring Chicago Park District parks through Oct. 3, visiting locations from Bronzeville to Rogers Park. Tickets are free. For a full schedule, visit GoodmanTheatre.org/SpeakOnIt.
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.
©2020 the Chicago Tribune
Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.