Cheryl L. West Tells Fannie Lou Hamer’s Mississippi Story
by Rachel Norby & Barry David Horwitz
Fannie Lou Hamer started out as a sharecropper in Mississippi and stayed true to her origins. In 1962, at 44 years old, she first learned she had the right to register and vote. So, she repeatedly challenged the all-white voting board and got her rights. She never stopped fighting for freedom after that.
Since 2013, the Voting Rights Act has been under attack by the Supreme Court. It’s time to act on Hamer’s motto: “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”
Hamer became a SNCC organizer and co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. The MFDP challenged the all-white Mississippi delegation to the Democratic Convention of 1964. She got on the bus and sang during the fateful Freedom Summer. She acted swiftly and purposely to spread voting rights.
“Fannie: The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer” begins at the 1964 Democratic Convention. describing the journey she and 17 others took to the county courthouse to try to register to vote or, as Hamer so accurately put it, to “register to become first-class citizens.”
Greta Oglesby’s magnificent singing and acting triumph! Her full, rich voice reverberates, as she takes us from Hamer’s beatings at the hands of police and her rousing public speeches. We feel Hamer’s faith and hope in the success of her freedom farm cooperative, as she sings, “This Little Light of Mine.” Oglesby lights up the hall.
The masterful projections depict her jail cell, protesters marching for their rights, and wonderful 60s freedom marches. They tell the story of the Civil Rights Movement and the painful road to voting rights.
Oglesby brilliantly makes Hamer a natural, honest, and persuasive leader. Hamer is inviting as she ties her apron or packs a suitcase to move on, always moving on. She deftly demonstrates Hamer’s mission to improve the lives of exploited poor people, to “find some hope where we thought none was possible.”
Hamer’s work for voting rights take her to the national stage, but she stays in touch with basic needs—even after the Voting Rights Act. She always has clothes, school supplies, and canned goods ready for anybody who needs help.
Vital to Oglesby’s performance are the musicians that accompany her spirituals and speeches: Spencer Bean, Leonard Maddox, Jr., and Morgan E. Stevenson. They create the warm mood, providing affirmation and fellowship.
Artfully directed by Tim Bond, the design features historical videos and 60s political posters, including: “TO HOPE IS TO VOTE.”
Fannie’s final lines: “Just because some folks ain’t wearing hoods no more doesn’t mean they ain’t hell-bent on destroying the soul of America.” This, of course, could be anyone—a sycophantic TV pundit or current member of Congress.
Perhaps we know people, who are unknowingly helping the destruction of “the soul of America” Maybe it’s time we go out and involve ourselves in making this country a better place. See this brilliant and moving show and ask yourself: “What would Fannie Lou Hamer do?”
“Fannie: The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer” by Cheryl L. West, directed by Tim Bond, featuring at TheatreWorks, Lucie Stern Theatre, in Palo Alto, California. Info: TheatreWorks.org – to April 2, 2023.
Cast: Greta Oglesby (Fannie Lou Hamer)
Banner photo: Greta Oglesby as civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer. Photos: Kevin Berne