Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
Fannie: The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer
Also see Eddie's recent review of Perfect Arrangement
Fannie Lou Hamer's incredibly inspiring and uplifting story comes to full life on the Lucy Stern stage of TheatreWorks Silicon Valley in a breathtaking, tour de force solo performance. With words ringing both spoken and sung in resounding, reverberating tones and vibrations, Greta Oglesby delivers an astounding, long-to-be-remembered performance of Cheryl L. West's Fannie: The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer .
From the moment Greta Oglesby's Fannie peers into the audience, it feels as if she is looking at and talking to each of us individually. In a sweet-sounding, Southern, sing-song voice that immediately captures our rapt attention, she tells us, "Now I ain't never told the whole story; but I stopped by to tell y'all 'cause, children, lotta work to be done if we ever gonna right this country."
For the next seventy minutes, we are in Fannie's hands, giving her "Amens" when she calls for them, clapping in rhythmic emotion to her songs, and even readily joining her in singing some of the songs that carried her and hundreds of others through the tough and dangerous years of seeking the rights for Blacks to vote in the South. We witness first-hand the life and times of one American who did not let extreme personal poverty, physical hardship, or life-threatening attacks disrupt her determination to change the world around her. Further, through her eyes and experiences we meet a host of other heroes–both known and unknown to the world today–who often made the ultimate sacrifice to ensure farmers like her could put a check mark on a ballot. Like them, she clearly spent her life guided by her favorite biblical verse, "I done put on the full armor of God, so I fear not."
The warrior may be dressed in skirts and heels while carrying her little purse at her side, but there is no question that she has actually wore that suit of armor every day for many years. This diminutive woman who beams both smiles and tears stands like a giant before us. That inner armor gave her the courage to march into hostile registration offices where she heard "I smell a Negro," and to endure a night where flew just over her sixteen times bullets while she was in bed before she got back to work the next day to walk the streets as a $10/week field worker for SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee) to register more folks to vote. Her own road to registration meant failing several times the evilly intentioned requirement to write down the de facto laws of the Mississippi Constitution. She chuckles as she says, "I didn't even know Mississippi had a constitution," and "I knew as much about those laws as a dog knows about Christmas." But learn the laws and pass the test she did; for as she tells us, "A door slammed doesn't mean it was wrong to knock." Time and again, we learn Fannie not only knocked, but she never moved until she found a way to get her foot in the door so it could no longer close on her or on her people.
Throughout the journey Fannie takes us to hear her many inspirational, often harrowing experiences as well as her often miraculous accomplishments and the songs of the Black Church and of Civil Rights era that are the threads that connect and embellish her storyline. With a voice that originates deep in her soul and communicates in rich, resonating notes, Greta Oglesby sends her Fannie into musical trances where songs like "Oh Freedom," "This Little Light of Mine," and "We Shall Not Be Moved" turn the audience at times into the congregation of a local church in the South and other times to a gathering of workers ready to hit the streets to canvass people to register. Our toes tap as her feet do a little dance across the stage. (Clearly, her Fannie can never stand still in one spot very long.) We keep time with our claps and sway in unison with our shoulders as she rings forth the words of songs that have moved hearts, inspired workers, and changed history time and again. As Fannie tells us, "When you need a little courage, that's when you sing a little song."
A woman who describes how she was beaten in a Mississippi jail for three days just because she and other women got off the bus to go to the washroom is also a woman who implores us to sing "the hardest song you'll ever have to sing" along with her. As we join in singing with her round after round of "I love everybody, I love everybody in my heart," more and more it sinks in that Fannie Lou Hamer's is a story that we each need to tell again and again and an example we each need to follow every day to make a difference for the good in someone else's life.
While Greta Oglesby's performance is singularly stunning and awe-inspiring, she clearly has help in conveying the power of Fannie's story. Spencer Bean (guitars), Leonard Maddox, Jr. (drums), and Morgan E. Stevenson (keyboards, harmonica, and music direction) are integral to Fannie's narrative, both in the accompanying music and back-up vocals, but also in the interjected punctuation and oral underlining that a few notes on the piano, chords on the organ, or beats on the drum provide to the words Fannie is speaking. Just as one would hear in a Black church or in a meeting of the faithful workers, these three also chime in verbally with their own "Amens" and "You tell it, sister" comments.
The projections designed by Miko S. Simmons powerfully and often movingly illustrate the specific locations of Fannie's stories, the surrounding events both good and horrific, and most importantly, the images of other heroes of the voter and civil rights movements. Images projected on an impressive, flexible set designed by Andrea Bechert allow Fannie to switch from grand auditoriums to her own home to the steps of a church where we are all inside as the congregation. Gregory Robinson's sound design places us in the midst of uplifting moments and bone-breaking and life-threatening moments while the Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz' lighting never lets us forget that this life story and lesson in history is one full of drama, celebration, and often, danger.
And the gestalt of it all as well as the myriad of specific touches flowing in art and heart are the outcomes of Tim Bond's provocative, inventive, good-humored, and sensitive direction.
The more Fannie tells her history, the more we realize "a lotta work" still has to be done today "if we gonna right this country." Even though her story is one that is now almost fifty years old, how can we not think about the parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that have already been chipped away and the rest which is currently under threat. As we exit this exceptional evening of witnessing and even participating in The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer, we can still hear Fannie's parting words–words that hopefully leave each of us with just a sliver of her optimistic yet stubborn determination to make a difference:
"I never gave up on my country, and neither should you. Put on that shield of faith 'cause together we're on our way, to a place where the wicked will cease ... We're on our way to Freedom Land."
Fannie: The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer runs through April 2, 2023, at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto CA. For tickets and information, please visit www.theatreworks.org. Please note: All patrons must wear masks during the performance.