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With her newest play, Cheryl L. West is making sure we hear the voices of civil rights leaders whose stories are not as frequently told.
“You’re seeing how the past connects with the present and the sacrifices that were made on our behalf for the changes and policies that we have now. We have a long way to go to really achieve true equity in this country, but it’s on the backs of the people who came before us that we’re at the point where we are,” said West.
Co-commissioned by Seattle Rep and Chicago’s Goodman Theatre for the 2019 New Stages Festival, “Fannie: The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer,” is finally getting its Seattle stage premiere. The one-woman show written by local playwright Cheryl L. West will be performed by E. Faye Butler in the Bagley Wright Theater at Seattle Rep Jan. 14-Feb. 13.
“It was important to me that ‘Fannie’ was our first show back in the building, and it’s a meaningful event for all of us,” said Braden Abraham, Seattle Rep’s artistic director.
Before “Fannie” could be performed in Seattle, the pandemic shut down theaters. West created an abridged version titled “Fannie Lou Hamer, Speak On It!” that Goodman Theatre presented at nine parks around Chicago in fall 2020. “Speak On It!” has been performed around the country, from Washington, D.C., to Sarasota, Florida, and Ashland, where it reopened the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in summer 2021.
But the first fully staged, indoor production was not performed until its extended run in the fall of 2021 at the Goodman Theatre. Now the same creative team of director Henry Godinez and music director Felton Offard, with Butler (who also performed in West’s “Pullman Porter Blues” at Seattle Rep in 2012) starring as Hamer, is bringing the production to Seattle Rep.
West, who is Seattle Rep’s most-produced living playwright, moved to Seattle from Chicago in 1999 to become associate artistic director at the Rep. Today, West writes full time and is an artist under commission through Seattle Rep’s Public Works program. She has written nearly two dozen plays that have been performed in England, on Broadway, at D.C.’s Arena Stage and in regional theaters around the country. In 2016, West received the Legend Award from The Hansberry Project, a program that celebrates and supports Black theater artists. Her adaptation of the book “The Watsons Go To Birmingham” will be performed at Seattle Children’s Theatre in May.
“Cheryl was an exciting voice here before I arrived at Seattle Rep, and it’s been thrilling for us to find new projects together, like ‘Shout Sister Shout!,’ and ‘Fannie,’ and others on the horizon,” said Abraham.
West became interested in Hamer while researching another project. Born in 1917, Hamer was the 20th child of Mississippi sharecroppers. She left school at age 12 and worked on a plantation until 1962, when she was fired for her voter registration efforts. Permanently injured by a police beating in 1963, Hamer continued her political activism, speaking around the country and attempting to run for public office. Hamer also launched the Freedom Farm Cooperative and low-income housing projects. She died in 1977 of breast cancer.
“The more I read, the more I said, ‘What a story!’ This woman was one of the best grassroots leaders our country has ever produced. She was fearless,” said West, who supplemented her reading with firsthand stories from Hamer’s civil rights attorney Victor McTeer and her campaign manager Charles McLaurin.
West envisioned a one-woman show that would strongly center the story on Hamer herself and allow audiences to really hear Hamer’s voice by incorporating segments of her speeches.
“She had such musicality in her language,” said West. The play builds on that musicality with civil rights songs performed by a three-piece band.
“A one-woman show with music was kind of a departure for me, but I’m so glad I did it this way because the audiences have really been with her,” said West.
With the play’s revival atmosphere, West says it’s common for audiences to sing along and testify. In Chicago, where many of Hamer’s surviving relatives attended performances, audience members even finished Fannie’s sentences.
“I believe stories come along to show you something. This one encouraged me on my courage journey. Who would have known that it would happen during a time when we were all really looking for hope, when we were looking for that sort of resilience of spirit?” asks West. “She was such an inspiring woman. So the show asks the question, ‘What can we do at this point?’ ”