By Southwester Staff

#2 E. Faye Butler (Fannie Lou Hamer) in Fannie Lou Hamer, Speak On It! by Cheryl L. West, directed by Henry Godinez; Courtesy of Liz Lauren

“Y’all got an election coming up! That’s way too important to ignore.”

Floating between the expensive yachts that idle in the Washington Channel, and the high-rise apartments of the Wharf where a new generation of lawmakers are rumored to live, is a small unassuming stage. On that stage are emblems of American history–half-circle flag buntings, an electric guitar amp, images of civil rights activists in the 1960s–asking once again to be seen, and remembered. Though the floating stage is small, the message couldn’t be bigger: “As soon as they take your voting rights, your human rights are soon to follow.”

Civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer came back to life last month, and with her live theatre, at the Wharf in Southwest. “Fannie Lou Hamer, Speak on It!” was staged Oct. 23-30 by Arena Stage, in partnership with the Wharf and Southwest Business Improvement District (SWBID). The performance was the first live show in over seven months at Arena Stage. 

The arrival of Cheryl West’s play “Speak on It!” in Washington, D.C. was two years in the making. Two-time Helen Hayes award-winner E. Faye Butler, who portrays Hamer, said West approached her with the idea when Butler and Goodman Theatre’s Artistic Director Henry Godinez were working with her in Chicago on a different project. Last year, West sent Butler a 90-minute play, and preparations began to “bring it to the people,” Butler said. However, when the pandemic and related lockdown restrictions went into force in the spring of 2020, the play was truncated to its current 50-minute format. Butler was accompanied by Felton Offard, who played soul and blues guitar, as well as a few lines, during the play.

“Speak on It!” ran in Chicago, from Sept. 17 to Oct. 8, which was a success, artistic director Molly Smith told “The Southwester.” All preparations and rehearsals for the play were virtual, so the first time the cast and crew performed in the venue at the Wharf was for technical rehearsal the week of the premiere. Though the show had to be shorter to accommodate an outdoor audience, and the cast and crew couldn’t meet in-person for rehearsals, Artistic Director Molly Smith told “The Southwester”  that she was “absolutely thrilled to have an opportunity after seven months to have a performance for a live audience.”

“Speak on It!” served two purposes for the District. Not only was it a reminder and call to get out the vote in the 2020 election, it was also part of Mayor Muriel Bowser’s “pilot” program for outdoor performances. According to a September press release, Mayor Bowser wanted to create an “opportunity to resume live entertainment in a controlled environment that can be scaled up or down and that District officials can learn from for future guidance.” The performance was one such show. 

Seating capacity was capped at 40 people and seats were marked where audience members could watch safely distanced from others. Temperatures were taken before patrons could enter, and their phone numbers were taken for tracing purposes. Other organizations “invited to resubmit plans for outdoor entertainment” included Adams Morgan Partnership BID, Capitol Riverfront BID, and Et Voila Restaurant. 

This dual purpose of the play couldn’t have been known, at least in detail, at its inception in 2018, nearly two years before the historic pandemic. It was instead more broadly meant to be situated in the Trump era and the broader continuum of contemporary American history. Though some of the ways in which systemic racism was manifest in Fannie’s time have since been banned or ruled unconstitutional, the fight for racial equality continues to this day. Still, few may have predicted in 2018 that we would witness such social upheaval in the summer of 2020 that a new push for social equality has nearly matched the sense of urgency felt in the 1960s. It is in this historic context that the words of Fannie come to us in a decisive moment with her timeless and prescient message: “Until I am free, you are not free either.”

Fannie told the audience that the American flag is “drenched in my people’s blood,” and that since we are “all made of the same blood…when I liberate myself, I liberate you.” Later in the performance, one of the actual American flags standing near Fannie was blown over in the wind. Butler responded to this presumably unexpected development in character: She staggered over to the fallen flag, showing the historical actor’s injuries sustained in 1963 at the hands of racist police, jailers, and fellow African American prisoners forced to beat her. She then picked up the flag, carefully restored it, then proceeded back downstage to the prop truncheon with which she had demonstrated her beating. She would remind the audience later: “I never gave up on my country, and neither should you.”

Hamer was not just an African American social justice icon, she was a towering feminist leader. It took over a century, she said, for “men to believe that women had sense enough,” and were “equal enough to vote too.” At the time this article was written, just a few short weeks ago, a woman has been elected to the offices of neither President of the United States nor Vice President. This is not coincidence, Fannie would say, and it is “poison for us as a people to not speak on what we know to be true.” It is true, she said, that men cannot “be the boss” in the house and then march with women “for justice in the street.”

In the spirit of speaking “on what we know to be true,” the play had a consistent theme throughout: Fannie will “tell ‘em what it is and like it is.” For instance, she told the story of President Lyndon B. Johnson – famed champion of desegregation in the 1960s – calling her an “ignorant” woman after she went “on TV and told the world” what she “knew to be true.” Similarly speaking “on truth,” she said she “wanted to talk to the white women” in the audience. She reminded them: “a lot of y’all got the vote while making sure we didn’t.” They accomplished this, Fannie said, by aligning themselves “with any swoll-head white man in power.” She told them that they are guilty “any time you stay silent about the wrongs done to us, about all women,” because “a white mother is no different than a black mother.” Still, she said, “we got more in common than not,” and women united can be “one hell of a voting majority.”

Part of the magic of “Speak on It!” was West’s ability to break the so-called fourth wall both by engaging audience members and speaking from the vantage point of a 1960s civil rights icon about the social justice push of today. Transcending the stage and the period was done sparingly and poignantly. It was historical education, performance, and a call to action. Fannie similarly evoked the legacy of her father, who was a preacher, in crafting a performance that blurred the lines of a sermon and a protest speech. In doing so, E. Faye Butler made a stirring call to vote “all these bad folks out of office,” or, as she described them, the “wicked.” 

The fork in the road is clear. “Either I done come to the future,” Fannie told Southwest, “or y’all done gone backwards to the past.”

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