Fannie Lou

Faye Butler as Fannie Lou Hamer in Goodman Theatre's "Fannie." 

Agitprop is alive and well in Goodman Theatre's Owen Theatre. In a good way.

Cheryl L. West's “Fannie (The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer)” not only brings to life a fierce civil rights activist many know little about, it also exhorts us not to let pernicious politicians (and others) chip away at the voting rights she fought so hard for, something that has been happening around us, especially in the South.

Part history lesson, part church service, part revival meeting and all infused with a dozen spirituals and protest songs, the solo show shines because of E. Faye Butler's virtuoso performance as Fannie. The co-commission with Seattle Repertory Theatre appeared as part of Goodman's 2019 New Stages Festival and has traveled to other cities, while an abridged version, “Fannie Lou Hamer, Speak On It!,” starring Butler toured Chicago parks to great success last September/October.

Directed by Henry Godinez in a broad style that seems suitable for the outdoors and all-ages audiences, the 70-minute piece fits comfortably in the Owen with an onstage backup band featuring Deonté Brantley, Morgan E. and music director Felton Offard (Oct. 25-31) followed by Michael Ross ( Nov. 3-21). Colette Pollard's scenic design sets the stage for the political conventions and other activities in which Hamer took part, and Rasean Davonte Johnson's projection design fills in everything from photos of Medgar Evers and Emmett Till to bunting and American flags. Jason Lynch's lighting, Michael Alan Stein's costumes and Victoria Deiorio's sound design (imperfect at times) complete the picture.

West's script begins in the middle of things, so it's hard to get a handle on the chronology. The opening sequence takes us to the 1964 Democratic National Convention where, having co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, Hamer traveled to try to get its delegation seated and stymie the regional all-white Democratic party's attempts to stifle African American representation. A speech by President Johnson cut off her televised testimony, and there's the suggestion that those in power objected to her unvarnished outspokenness.

Backing up to 1962 when her activism started, the lifelong Mississippian tells us that she was 44 before she learned she had the right to vote. We glean little about her early years except for offhand comments: She was the youngest of 20 children, had polio, left school after sixth grade and spent much of her life working as a sharecropper on a plantation.

The difficulty she had just registering to vote highlights the injustices of a shameful time within recent memory. She had to try three times before she could register because of literacy tests and poll taxes intended to disenfranchise the poor and those with limited educational opportunities, particularly people of color. These struggles sparked her work to secure voting rights for Black women in Mississippi and for others.

Butler's Hamer talks about her work with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Freedom Farm Cooperative and other organizations, as well as her runs (unsuccessful) for office. The insults, threats and assaults she endured for her beliefs are horrible and would have deterred almost anyone else.

Most horrific is an incident, which Hamer describes in detail though some facts are left out, that occurred in 1963, when she and others traveling by bus to a pro-citizenship Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Charleston, South Carolina, stopped for a break at a cafe in Winona, Mississippi, and ended up being beaten, arrested, hauled off to jail and beaten some more, in her case so badly that she never fully recovered. That this happened in my lifetime — and that racist beatings and murders are still happening today — are enough to make one lose faith in, well, almost everything.

But Hamer never did lose faith, or so West and the vibrant Butler would have us believe. Although her most quotable line — ”I am sick and tired of being sick and tired” — has an edge and is carved on her tombstone, she also tells us that the church keeps Black people sane and music has always been a balm for her.

Butler's feisty, down-to-earth, plainspoken Hamer is captivating, but I'm not sure how closely she resembles the real woman. Her performance really peaks when she's singing — ”Oh, Freedom,” “This Little Light of Mine,” “I've Been Changed,” “We Shall Not Be Moved” and, one of my favorites, “I Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me 'Round” — so much so that it's almost impossible not to sing along when she asks.

Like many in the civil rights movement, Hamer was honored more after death than during her life. In 1977, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young delivered the eulogy at her well-attended memorial service, and she was posthumously inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in 1993.

The lesson for us, as West and Butler so forcefully point out, is to make sure her achievements live on.

A short run not to miss: “Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski”

An important story and an indelible performance come together in “Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski” in the Yard at Chicago Shakespeare only through Nov. 14. David Strathairn is riveting as the courier for the Polish Underground resistance during World War II who spoke truth to leaders in Britain and the U.S. about what was happening to the Jews in Poland and, Cassandra-like, was ignored.

Written by Clark Young and Derek Goldman, and directed by Goldman, the 90-minute one-man show originally created by The Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics at Georgetown University starts with Strathairn connecting the past with the present. Then he becomes Karski and, in the first person present tense, tells us about everything from his small-town childhood to the torture he endured as a Nazi prisoner, his daring escape and his work reporting on what he'd seen, including in the Warsaw Ghetto and a Nazi extermination camp.

Considering himself “an insignificant little man” and a failure, he didn't talk about his experiences publicly until the 1980s (he's interviewed in “Shoah”) but finished his doctorate at Georgetown University, where he became a professor in the School of Foreign Service for 40 years. He died in 2000, and a statue of him on campus sparked the interest of the playwrights.

While Misha Kachman's simple scenic design subtly suggests a classroom with a desk and two chairs, Zach Blane's lighting and Roc Lee's original music and sound design help conjure up the times and places described and acted out, often in a highly physical way. There's also a surprising amount of humor and, by the end, we feel we've gotten to know Karski, a film clip and photo of whom are projected at a couple of points.

“Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski” is an ongoing educational project that has been and will be performed elsewhere. It is also being made into a film. Stick around for the 20-minute post-show talkback with the actor and playwrights to learn more about the creative process and get answers to your questions.

The Yard at Chicago Shakespeare. Through Nov. 14. $43-$75. 312-595-5600, chicagoshakes.com

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