I must admit, shamefully, to not coming into the performance with much knowledge about Hamer. I was aware of the bare details — that she was a prominent activist in the civil rights movement — and had heard her famous quote about being "sick and tired of being sick and tired," but not many more details than that. While there is considerably more for me to learn, Cheryl L. West's play gives audiences a welcome and spirited crash course in Hamer's life and work in a brisk, one-act package.
Hamer grew up as the last of 20 children in an impoverished sharecropping family in deeply segregated Mississippi. She became an activist in her mid-40s, when she learned about and became outraged by efforts to prevent the Black population from exercising the right to vote. Becoming involved with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and Southern Christian Leadership Conference, she fought for her own voter registration, then took on the wider fight, enduring harassment, arrests, humiliation, death threats and physical brutality to stand up against racism and for civil and human rights, crossing the country to inspire and encourage people from many backgrounds to join her in that righteous battle.
A co-founder of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, the National Women’s Political Caucus, and the Freedom Farm Cooperative; a co-organizer of the 1964 Freedom Summer; and a candidate for state and national office, Hamer was a tireless voice for the movement, speaking out for liberation for all people, and an amazing example of Black resilience and hope in the face of adversity.
TheatreWorks' production of West's show, directed by the company's artistic director Tim Bond, tells Hamer's story in a lively, engaging fashion, having Oglesby as Hamer speaking directly to and interacting with the audience throughout the show's 70-ish minutes. As the title notes, music is essential to the production, as it was to Hamer and her work, with uplifting, familiar spirituals and movement songs woven into her speeches and actions. Oglesby nimbly oscillates between speaking and singing (and sometimes rocking a rollicking tambourine) and invites the audience to join in as much as possible.
While it's unquestionably Oglesby's tour-de-force show, she's not all alone up there. Joining her on the Lucie Stern stage is the excellent trio of music director Morgan E. Stevenson on keyboards and harmonica, Spencer Bean on guitars, and Leonard Maddox Jr. on drums. They also chime in on beautiful vocal harmonies and occasional shout-outs, adding to the community-meeting feeling.
Oglesby's Hamer offers a mix of down-to-earth humor, rousing rhetoric, heartbreaking anecdotes and the inspirational zeal of a very effective preacher (Hamer was, in fact, a preacher's daughter), and the script utilizes powerful words plucked from Hamer's speeches. Oglesby also embodies Hamer physically, her movements showing a woman who's suffered, is weary, yet carries on marching.
The show is brief, but Oglesby's role requires unflagging energy and warm connection, which she plentifully provides, earning an enthusiastic standing ovation at the press opening.
Andrea Bechert's set and Miko S. Simmons' projections surround the production in protest signs and voting-rights posters along with some photographs of historical figures mentioned in the play, such as slain civil-rights leader Medgar Evers and President Lyndon B. Johnson, and some chilling footage of a Ku Klux Klan rally. Sound and lighting by Gregory Robinson and Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz, respectively, also enhance the setting, although Oglesby, in truth, could carry the show without anything but that marvelous voice.
Hamer's words, West's script and Oglesby's performance stand on their own, but Bond, in the program's director's notes, offers additional context and urgency to the production, pointing out, as Oglesby does on stage, that the Voting Rights Act, that Hamer and others fought so hard for has been steadily chipped away in the past decade by those who seek to restrict voting access for marginalized communities, and those who attack democracy itself.
"When Fannie utters 'truth ain't never been the enemy, 'less'n you in the business of worshiping a lie,'" Bond writes, "it eerily sounds like she is speaking to our current moment."
"Fannie" isn't just an entertaining and affectionate tribute to or history lesson on a hero from the past, it's a call to action. As one of Hamer's most famous quotes goes, "Nobody's free until everybody's free." And Hamer's voice — however powerful — isn't meant to be a solo act. It must be amplified and lifted up by the voices of all of us.
"Fannie: The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer" runs through April 2 at Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Tickets are $42-$82. More information is available at theatreworks.org.