UPDATED Oct. 2: The production, which paused following the potential COVID-19 exposure to the company to allow time for assessment and testing per established protocols, resumed Oct. 1 at Austin Town Hall Park (5610 W. Lake).

UPDATED Sept. 28: The Goodman Theatre canceled Fannie Lou Hamer, Speak On It! performances at Indian Boundary Park on Sept. 25 and Portage Park on Sept. 26 because of a potential COVID-19 exposure to the company, according to the Goodman Theatre. Performances are scheduled to resume on Oct. 1 at Austin Town Hall.

Fannie Lou Hamer was 44 years old in 1961 when she learned she, and other Black folks in Mississippi, had the right to vote. Once she knew, the Civil Rights activist and grassroots community organizer dedicated the rest of her life to registering Black voters, demanding equality and equity for Black people in Congress and across industries, assembling for women and using the power of music and other humanities to bridge divides and comfort anxieties in times of brutal opposition.

Now, Hamer’s legendary calls to action are coming to nine of Chicago’s parks in the form of the new play: Fannie Lou Hamer, Speak On It!

Written by Cheryl L. West and directed by Henry Godinez, Fannie is an immersive, cooperative experience presented by the Goodman Theatre in collaboration with the Chicago Park District. The free show is also the first Actors’ Equity-sanctioned Chicago production since the pandemic closures in March. 

In the true spirit of Hamer’s message, onsite volunteers with the League of Women Voters and the U.S. Census — among others — will be registering people to vote in the 2020 election and getting them counted in the 2020 Census.

Poster by The Goodman Theater

Storied stage actor and cabaret performer E. Faye Butler will bring the unsung hero back to life in the 40-minute production, which is an abridged version of the hour-and-a-half show that was supposed to premiere at the Goodman this fall before COVID-19 shut down venues across the city. Fannie is currently billed to grace indoor stages as part of the theatre’s 2021 programming.

The event’s traveling format — which starts in Englewood on Sept. 17 and wraps in Bronzeville on Oct. 3 — is inspired by Godinez’s mentor, playwright and director Luis Valdez (regarded as the father of Chicano theater) and his El Teatro Campesino. Of his theater movement, Valdez believed, “If the people can’t come to the theater, then the theater must go to the people.”

Butler says Godinez’s expression is a rally, there’s no way around it.

“We’re telling her [Hamer’s] story of humanity, but also the biggest thing about her — she told folks ‘you have a right, you have a privilege and a duty to vote,’” Butler explains of the play’s resonance. “It wasn’t until she was 44 years old that she began the struggle and the fight to help people understand that they had rights. That they were good enough. That it didn’t matter that you were Black or brown or poor—we all deserved the same thing as Americans.

“That’s part of what this is,” she continues, “remembering we have a voice and a choice.”

Fannie Lou Hamer was born in Montgomery County, Miss., in 1917. When she was two years old, her family moved one hours’ drive west to Sunflower County to work as sharecroppers on W. D. Marlow’s plantation. Hamer worked on the plantation from age six until she was kicked off the grounds after her first attempt to register to vote at age 45 in 1962.

Hamer as a Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party delegate at the Democratic National Convention in 1964. Photo: Library of Congress

The following year, Hamer passed the then-required Mississippi voter application and literacy test — specifically designed for Black Americans to fail — and became a strong proponent for voting rights, along with becoming increasingly involved with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, whose other members included the likes of the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis, the late former Washington, D.C., Mayor Marion Berry and the late Pan-African activist Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael). 

In June 1963, Hamer was arrested alongside other demonstrators in Winona, Miss., but it didn’t deter her from continuing her mission — organizing the Freedom Summer initiative and co-founding the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in 1964. 

Hamer would go on to also co-found the National Women’s Caucus in 1971, a further example of her historical erasure as the modern feminist movement centered her white peers Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan and the late U.S. Rep. Bella Abzug. 

Hamer passed away in 1977 at 59 years old. Her headstone is engraved with her most famous quote: “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.” 

Although she’s been gone for 43 years, Fannie opens with her arrival. She’s been dispatched from another realm along with her musician travel companion; sent to address the struggles society is facing in the present through lessons from the past— her past. 

“She’s coming to you in your time to remind you about her time, and to merge the two together to shake your tree. To make you think. To give you perspective,” said Butler about her portrayal of Hamer. “She’s in between these two worlds, and she’s coming specifically to tell you stories about what happened then, what’s happening now and what will happen in the future if we don’t do what we need to do.”

E. Faye Butler as Fannie Lou Hamer in 'Fannie Lou Hamer, Speak On It!' Photo by Liz Lauren.

In addition to being a collection of some of her most formidable speeches and passionate arguments for reclaiming one’s civic power, Fannie features a number of songs Hamer was known to perform to empower those around her, ease tensions and remind people of the commonalities that unite them. 

Just two months before the 2020 U.S. presidential election, both Butler and the Goodman Theatre believe this show couldn’t fall by the wayside. They firmly believe that the arts have an imperative role in encouraging the public to understand and participate in the democratic process.

“As storytellers, it’s our job to give perspective, to cast light in dark shadows,” says Marissa Ford, associate managing director at the Goodman Theater. 

“For Black women, for Black people to be able to vote, to learn what they had to go through to do that and what it means to be able to do that in this time, before we go through the election — it’s not our job to tell people how to vote, but we want to make sure people are hearing different stories and seeing different perspectives so they know the importance of showing up,” Ford continues. 

For Butler, she hopes Fannie moves folks to continue uncovering the past — especially the legacies of women who made history and are rarely credited for it — to help the country move forward. 

“There are so many of these stories to tell. The women are always the unsung heroes. That’s what I most appreciate and admire about Cheryl West. She always tells the story of the women who’re trailblazing but shoved to the back because some man needs to be to the front,” Butler says. “It makes me very proud and happy to know that we’re reminding some and introducing to others another legend in women’s history. We don’t do that enough.”

Hamer’s legendary calls to action are coming to nine of Chicago’s parks in the form of the new play: Fannie Lou Hamer, Speak On It! Photo by Liz Lauren.

Performances will be socially distanced to abide by CDC, state and city guidelines, including 12 feet separating performers and audience. Attendees are required to wear masks upon entry and are encouraged to bring their own lawn chairs or blankets as seating during the show. 

‘Fannie Lou Hamer, Speak On It’ tour dates

* 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 of African American History, 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

* October 4 at 3pm— Portage Park (Portage Park) 4100 N. Long 

* October 6 at 6pm — Willye B. White Park (Rogers Park) 1610 Howard 

* October 7 at 6pm — Indian Boundary Park (West Ridge) 2500 W. Lunt 

* October 8 at 6pm — DuSable Museum of African American History, George Washington Park (Washington/Woodlawn) 740 E. 56th Place

Headshot of Jessi Roti
is a freelance writer for The TRiiBE.