To vote or not to vote this November seems a fairly absurd question to many of us facing what is likely the most crucial election of our lifetimes. But if you’re still on the fence about participating in our (admittedly problematic) electoral process at this point, may I, in all irony, quote the Oompa Loompa-in-Chief and simply ask: “What do you have to lose?”
Actually, don’t answer that, because surely, you haven’t forgotten that voting wasn’t always a luxury or even an entitlement for Black folks—let alone Black women, who weren’t fully granted the right until 1965. One of the Black women at the forefront of the fight to ensure all Black folks their full rights to civic participation was Fannie Lou Hamer, the Mississippi firebrand who co-founded the Freedom Democratic Party, facing numerous assaults and immeasurable risk in her quest to secure civil rights for Black Americans, fondly remembered for peppering her passionate speeches with spirituals.
It is upon Hamer’s speeches that playwright Cheryl L. West’s Fannie Lou Hamer, Speak on It! is based. Co-commissioned by Chicago’s Goodman Theatre and Seattle Repertory Theatre and adapted into a 40-minute version of West’s “parent” script, Fannie, the play, directed by Henry Godinez with acclaimed actress E. Faye Butler in the titular role, revisits the enduring relevance of the civil rights icon’s fight for freedom. Ahead of the 2020 presidential election—and in a theatre season deeply disrupted by the outbreak of COVID-19—Fannie Lou Hamer, Speak on It! is being presented for FREE in nine parks and outdoor community locations from September 17 through October 3, in partnership with the Chicago Park District’s Night Out in the Parks.
In a statement provided to The Root, West explained the timeliness of her script and the spiritual resurrection of a true American heroine for what the Goodman calls “an electrifying call-to-action”:
In my play, voter activist Fannie has come back to rally us in times reminiscent of the ’60s. Dangerous, divided times in our country. Times where the vote was and is being suppressed, corrupted, stolen. Fannie Lou reminds us that there’s courage in the face of fire, there’s hope in tomorrow, and that we all have a stake in the current state of our country. Mind you, she is an equal opportunity offender when it comes to telling the truth, and yet her sense of humor, her deep capacity for love, and her soaring voice raised in song, keeps you glued to your seat.
Inspired by Hamer’s fiery rhetoric and “all the audacious Mississippi women” in her own family, West also shared that she was “especially motivated to tell the story of a Mississippian woman in her own vernacular and to share the folksy poetry and fire in her spoken word”—including the famed spirituals “I Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round,” “We Shall Not Be Moved” and “I’m on My Way to Freedom.” West also explained:
Part of my mission as a writer is to tell the stories of unsung heroes. And to me, Fannie Lou Hamer was very much an unsung hero. While the tales of the civil rights movement often herald the contributions of men, women have too often been given a minor footnote when they were integral to the movement being sustained—and they, too, put their lives on the line. I knew about Fannie Lou Hamer, but really didn’t know her story. I soon learned she was one of the most inspirational and powerful women of the civil rights movement. I remember reading whenever she sang, there wasn’t a dry eye left in the place. It was her singing and her fiery speeches that inspired people to get involved in the voting rights movement and to make changes in their condition. This sharecropper woman had only a sixth-grade education but, as she said in one of her speeches, folks would say “I had a PhD mind. “
This shortened, abridged version will effectively be a teaser for the upcoming full production of Fannie, now scheduled as part of the Goodman’s 2021 season. However, what makes these nine free performances extra special is the way each will honor Hamer’s legacy. The Goodman is partnering with the League of Women Voters, Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc. and Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights (on-site at each park) to help attendees register to vote and/or answer questions on-site at each of the performances to facilitate voter registration—“as Fannie would have wanted,” says West, adding:
Hopefully every audience member will leave the theater asking “what action, big or small, can I take to make things better in my home, my community, my country?” To vote is to have voice and when we raise our collective voices in resistance and song, we truly become the United States of America. How “woke” to the vote are we in 2020? To be a citizen, we have a responsibility a duty to vote, for folks died so we could have the privilege. How small actions can feed hope and build into movements, movements essential for change. We have to “unvote the okey-doke!”
Performance Dates are as follows:
- September 17 at 6pm – Hamilton Park (Englewood) 513 W. 72nd Street
- September 18 at 6pm – Robert Abbott Park (West Chesterfield) 49 E. 95th Street
- September 19 at 3pm – DuSable Museum, George Washington Park (Washington/Woodlawn) 740 E. 56th Place
- September 24 at 6pm – Willye B. White Park (Rogers Park) 1610 Howard Street
- September 25 at 6pm – Indian Boundary Park (West Ridge) 2500 W. Lunt Avenue
- September 26 at 3pm – Portage Park (Portage Park) 4100 N. Long Avenue
- October 1 at 6pm – Austin Town Hall (Austin) 5610 W. Lake Street
- October 2 at 6pm – Homan Square (North Lawndale) 3559 W. Arthington Street
- October 3 at 3pm – Samuel Ellis Park (Bronzeville/Douglas) 3520 S. Cottage Grove Avenue
“How ‘woke to the vote’ are we, nearly 60 years after the Voting Rights Act demolished those discriminatory barriers that kept people of color from exercising their civil liberty?” asks West. “There is courage in the face of fire, hope in tomorrow, and we all have a stake in our country.
“There is a line in the play where Fannie says upon her arrival, ‘I thought by now things would’ve done changed,” West recalls, adding. “But look like I done either come to the future or ya’ll done gone backwards to the past. Say amen somebody.’”
Performances of Fannie Lou Hamer, Speak on It!, will be first-come, first-serve. For more information, visit the Goodman’s site.