PICK! ASR THEATER ~~ Heartfelt Story: Fannie Lou Hamer Celebrated at TheatreWorks

By Joanne Engelhardt

You know you’re in for a story about the plight of Southern Black people when you take your seat in the Lucie Stern Theater in Palo Alto for Fannie: The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer and see signs all over the theater walls with slogans like “Folks died so you could vote,” “We demand the right to vote,” and “Pass the Civil Rights Bill.”

Then a stubby woman strides down one of the theater’s aisles, gallops up the steps pronouncing her presence and begins a 66-minute dialogue – interrupted only a few times by a line or two from one of the men in the three-person musical orchestra – and by the glorious 1960s gospel songs she sings.

…“To hope is to vote!” — activist/civil rights hero Fannie Lou Hamer…

The magnificent Greta Oglesby immerses herself in the role of civil rights advocate Fannie Lou Hamer who was a simple 44-year-old sharecropper in Louisville, Mississippi when she took on that mantel after learning that President Lyndon B. Johnson was trying to get Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act.

One day Fannie and seventeen others went to the county courthouse to register to vote, but just about everyone else in her town had different ideas. The would-be registrants never even got in the door. Thinking back on it, Fannie declares “We were only trying to register! Imagine if we were actually trying to vote!!”

TheatreWorks artistic director Tim Bond gives Oglesby all the space she needs to exhibit the emotions – from joy to pain and agony – that created the firebrand Fannie became.

One of the most difficult scenes to watch is Fannie telling what happened to her when she was thrown into jail – first alone, but then put in with four male prisoners, both black and white. Listening as she describes being sodomized by one, then another, and another and another, can make your blood boil. Such experiences only made Fannie more resolved than ever that she and “her kind” deserved to both be equal and to have the right to vote.

When Oglesby belts out her gospel songs, she makes the audience feel they are in her church, complete with a sporadic “hallelujah” from the men who add so much, both with their voices and their fine instrumentation—music director Morgan E, Stevenson on keyboards and harmonica, Spencer Guitar on guitars, and Leonard Maddox Jr. on drums.

At one point Fannie urges the audience to join her in a rousing rendition of “This Little Light of Mine.” The audience sings first altogether, then she divides the crowd and has half sing, then the other half. By then she has everyone in her pocket, stomping their feet and singing out as if in a Southern church gospel service.

Photo Credit: Kevin Berne

Aided by Miko S. Simmons’ projections, scenic designer Andrea Bechert does a masterful job of creating a set that switches from scenes of marches and demonstrations to intimate times in Fannie’s living room. Ronnie Rafael Alcaraz’s lighting adds another dimension to many scenes as does Gregory Robinson’s sound.

Yet  this reviewer found something wanting in playwright Cheryl L. West’s scant (one hour, six minutes) script. At one point Oglesby marched off the stage and a slide came up telling the audience that Fannie Lou died of heart failure in 1977, a few months shy of her 60th birthday. Then Oglesby came out to take a bow. The ending is so abrupt – and the play itself so short! – that this reviewer assumed it was an intermission.

Clearly, this is a production with a lot of heart. What it lacks is a clear view of when it needs to stop ticking.


Aisle Seat Executive Reviewer Joanne Engelhardt is a Peninsula theatre writer and critic. She is a voting member of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC). Contact: joanneengelhardt@comcast.net


ProductionFannie: The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer
Written by
Cheryl L. West
Directed byTim Bond
Producing CompanyTheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Production DatesThru Apr 2nd, 2023
Production AddressLucie Stern Theater
1305 Middlefield Road Palo Alto, CA
Telephone(877) 662-8978
Tickets$30- $90
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

Other Voices…

"Inspired by her life story and filled with her music, FANNIE is a hopeful rallying cry that honors the spirit of a true revolutionary."
Actors Theatre of Louisville
[the play is] "...welcoming to all people and highly entertaining. For those who know little about Hamer’s life, there is a willingness to inform. For those that do, there’s an impulse to celebrate the achievements of what turned out to be an extraordinary American life..."
Chicago Tribune
..."rich in memorable vignettes, just as the song-laden show abounds in energy, wit and aspiration."
Chicago On the Aisle
"...As Hamer ruminates on the problems of the 1960s — police brutality, victim blaming, gentrification, the education gap and voter suppression, among them — the unsettling parallels to life in 2020's deepen. Even before the play evokes Harriet Tubman and John Lewis, the message crystallizes: If these heroes fought for what’s right in the face of unspeakable turmoil and trauma, what’s your excuse for apathy?"
Washington Post