OSF play review: 'Fannie' is a triumphant return to the stage

Bill Choy
Siskiyou Daily News
A scene from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of “Fannie: The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer.”

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival returned in triumphant fashion Saturday at the Allen Elizabethan Theatre with “Fannie: The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer.” 

This is the first live play at OSF since the COVID-19 pandemic closed the Ashland, Ore. theatre company in March of 2020.

I’m pleased to report OSF's return was well worth the wait. Fannie is a powerful and life-affirming production with a standout performance by E. Faye Butler. This is a beautiful play to celebrate the return of live performances.

Bill Choy.

This outstanding production stars Butler in a tour de force performance backed by a wonderfully talented group of musicians. They are Chic Street Man on guitar, Morgan E. on keyboards, and Sarh Allen on drums.

Fannie Lou Hamer was a famed civil rights activist who fought for people’s right to vote and social injustice. I admit I did not know her story before seeing this play and was profoundly affected by who she was, what she endured, and all she did in her life. Butler makes this remarkable woman come alive on stage as I was riveted from start to finish by her portrayal. The play is informative and makes one think about how far we have come as a country and how far we still have to go.

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There were a few scenes when I had to wipe the tears from my eyes to hear what Fannie had to endure. This included being wrongly imprisoned and the severe and an inhuman beating she took in prison. Although chilling to hear, it is important to clearly understand the injustices she and others faced.  Her courage and what she did remind us of how important it is to fight for what’s right sometimes against great odds, be true to oneself, love all of humankind, and that compassion, equality, and kindness are human traits we all need to embrace. Butler does poignant work here, making the audience become captivated and moved by Fannie and her life. 

"Fannie: The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer" is a play that made me think, reflect and care. It is vital to have such a world-renowned theatre company like OSF in the region. 

Fannie Lou Hamer lived a fascinating and full life. She was the 20th child born into a Mississippi sharecropper family.  At only six years of age, she began picking cotton and dropped out of school at 12 to work the fields full time. At the age of 44 in 1962, she became involved with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. She and her fellow activists attempted to register to vote but were met with police pushback and a discriminatory literacy test. Fannie Lou was then kicked off the plantation and survived 16 drive-by shootings while in hiding. In 1963, on her third attempt, Fannie Lou passed the voter registration tests. Eventually, she led voter registration and education initiatives and continued her community organizing work even after a brutal police beating left her with lasting injuries. She also ran for congress and the senate in her home state of Mississippi. Fannie Lou sadly died of breast cancer at the age of 59 in 1977. 

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The play has Fannie revisit different points in her life, and Butler does a masterful job of conveying Fannie’s resolve and commitment. We hear her telling stories of what took place in Fannie’s life, as we get to know through her words, her family, her activism and her firm resolve of the importance of standing up for what's right. No matter the obstacles and hate she received, including numerous death threats. Butler is a masterful actor and commands the stage brings a fully realized and flesh out character to the stage.  

The play has music throughout including rousing numbers throughout with many well-known songs from the time of the Civil Rghts movement used beautifully in touching fashion, effectively using audience involvement during songs. This includes "This Little Light of Mine," "Oh, Freedom," and "We Shall Not Be Moved."

This play had me involved throughout and had me thinking and reflecting on a great many issues. Fannie is a beautifully constructed production expertly directed by Henry Godinez and is a play I hope to see more than once during its run. A big round of applause must be given to playwright  Cheryl L. West to construct such a well-written piece of theatre and make more people of such an amazing human being in Fanie Lou Hamer.  It is a must-see production for sure.   

The play runs through Oct. 9 and plays at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday until Oct. 9, with a few Wednesday performances. 

Starting Sept. 1, Greta Oglesby, who has been in a number of OSF productions over the years, will take on the role of Fannie through the end of the run. 

Tickets for Fannie are $35 for any performance. Fannie runs around 80 minutes with no intermission. To purchase tickets, go to www.osfashland.org.