Excerpts from New FANNIE LOU Musical to Showcase One Woman's Voting Rights Struggle; Concert Set for Carnegie Hall, 10/9
A little over 50 years ago, on Aug. 31, 1962, an African American sharecropper who had spent most of her life working in Mississippi fields traveled to her district's county seat to register to vote. She was denied the right.
So began the public activism of Fannie Lou Hamer, whose struggles for voting and civil rights spanned the next 15 years. This coming fall, excerpts from a new musical inspired by Hamer's life and work, written by playwright/composer Felicia Hunter, will be presented in concert format on one of Carnegie Hall's iconic stages. The one-night-only special event also will serve as a benefit for the Center for Law and Social Justice, Medgar Evers College, CUNY.
"I'm very excited about this performance," said Felicia, who also is a journalist. "I'm especially excited that it will serve as a benefit for the Center for Law and Social Justice. It's an excellent community asset, and the kinds of issues they tackle mirror the issues that were important to Fannie Lou Hamer -- human dignity, self-determination and, of course, voting rights."
The musical Fannie Lou tells the story of Fannie Lou Hamer's voting rights struggle through her eyes and the eyes of various fictional characters, who represent a variety of viewpoints. There are African Americans who are reluctant to become involved in the movement, and there are whites who are supportive of it as well as resistant to it.
"Scenes and Songs from Fannie Lou: At Carnegie Hall" will be presented Thursday, Oct. 9, beginning at 7:30 p.m. at Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall. Tickets are available online at www.carnegiehall.org/Calendar/2014/10/9/0730/PM/Scenes-and-Songs-from-Fannie-Lou/ or www.fannieloumusical.com/purchase_tickets.
"In hindsight, yes, of course we can say that the voting rights movement was on the right side of history," said Felicia. "But with this, I wanted to explore the different viewpoints that were prevalent at the time. Everybody, even some African Americans, didn't agree that they should push so fervently for voting rights. And while our image of the Southern racist can be quite overshadowing, there were a number of whites who stood up for voting rights -- and who suffered severely, even lost their lives, because of it. I wanted to present all of those perspectives with Fannie Lou."
Felicia is no stranger to bio-musicals. She's appeared on stage, as part of an ensemble cast, in a work about the life of actress Frances Farmer written by the late Jack Eric Williams, a Stephen Sondheim protégé. That experience, she said, was key to opening the door for creation of her own original works.
"Working and rehearsing with Jack on a daily basis was really the catalyst that led me to believe I could write my own musicals -- just going through the creative process with him and being privy to his thought processes," recalled Felicia. "I didn't even realize his impact at the time. Writing musicals was the farthest thing from my mind. But years later, when I began to think about it, I wasn't afraid to pursue it. That's because of Jack. Not only being able to observe his talent and how he worked first-hand, but he was very kind to me. It was my first professional production, and he was very nice and supportive. It just goes to show, you never know the influence you'll have on people."
Even before Williams, however, Felicia began to gain an interest in the stage through Broadway composer Scott Frankel, when both were students at Yale. Felicia auditioned for a campus performance of John Kander-Fred Ebb music that Frankel was putting together, and he cast her in one of the roles. That experience is just another example of serendipity, said Felicia.
"I was just looking for something fun to do, something that would, for a little while, get me out of the library where I was spending just about all of my time," recalled Felicia. "I wasn't looking at it in terms of a career choice. But that experience was just so wonderful and enjoyable, that it planted a seed.
"And, just like my time working with Jack, I learned so much working with Scott," Felicia continued. "For example, song placement in a theatrical work, and also dramatic escalation -- both within a song and and in terms of the structural framework of your musical. Working with Scott brought to the forefront for me those elements of putting together a theatrical piece. And, he did it with such ease, such joy. His enjoyment of what he was doing was infectious. It was really a wonderful project to work on, and a great learning experience."
Felicia began writing her own full-fledged musicals in earnest about eight years ago as something "fun and engaging" to do in her spare time. To date she's written about a half-dozen stage works, including Fannie Lou.
"I've always enjoyed music and other art forms," said Felicia, who attended undergraduate school at Syracuse University -- where she held a dual major in mass communications and sociology -- and graduate school at Yale. A musician, she began studying viola in grade school and has played in various small and large ensembles. She also has studied several other instruments and is a trained vocalist.
"You cannot underestimate the power of art as a vehicle for change and enlightenment," Felicia said. "When I see a movie or read a book, for example, in addition to being entertained, I take away with me whatever underlying social commentary the author conveys. I can agree with it or disagree with it, but I relish being exposed to a new and different way of thinking about or interpreting the human condition. It helps me grow as a human being."
Felicia started writing Fannie Lou after reading a biography of Fannie Lou Hamer, "This Little Light of Mine" by Kay Mills.
"It started with just one song, then another, then another. Then the dialogue came," she recalled. She added that the subject matter dovetails nicely with her interest in social issues.
"The action takes place 50 years ago, but the themes are very relevant today," said Felicia. "I think that although we've made a lot of social progress over the past few decades, in some ways we've reverted as well. I think Mrs. Hamer and others who worked so hard for basic human rights would be quite surprised to see some of what's transpired over time."
Fannie Lou had its Off-Broadway debut in 2012. It was met with both critical and audience acclaim. For the Oct. 9 special event, selected dialogue and music -- ranging from blues to folk to jazz to traditional musical theater to spoken word to opera -- will be performed by a cast of more than a dozen actors and a live, six-piece instrumental ensemble.
In addition to the performance, a portion of the program will be devoted to an interactive discussion about Fannie Lou Hamer, the time period in which the action in the musical takes place, and the historical context of circumstances that impeded voting rights. Esmeralda Simmons, Esq., founder and Executive Director of the Center for Law and Social Justice, will be featured as a special guest speaker.
"You'd probably be surprised to learn that many people are not familiar at all with Fannie Lou Hamer and the voting rights struggle," noted Felicia. "Mrs. Hamer and people like her actually had to fight hard for the right to vote, and had their lives threatened because of it. Some even lost their lives. That's something that some people today can't imagine, can't grasp. But the story needs to be told, and retold, and retold again, so that it's never forgotten - and we don't end up making the same mistakes over again."
Tickets for "Scenes and Songs from Fannie Lou: At Carnegie Hall" from $45 to $124. A portion (approximately 20 percent) of each parterre-level ticket will be donated to the Center for Law and Social Justice. To purchase a ticket or for more information, visit www.carnegiehall.org/Calendar/2014/10/9/0730/PM/Scenes-and-Songs-from-Fannie-Lou/ or www.fannieloumusical.com, or call CarnegieCharge (212) 247-7800, or visit the Box Office at 57th and Seventh.