Merrimack Repertory Theatre Presents FANNIE LOU HAMER: SPEAK ON IT!

National civil rights figure Fannie Lou Hamer famously said, “I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

By: Oct. 13, 2020

Merrimack Repertory Theatre Presents FANNIE LOU HAMER: SPEAK ON IT!

National civil rights figure Fannie Lou Hamer famously said, "I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired."

Merrimack Repertory Theatre (MRT) joins theatres across America this month in presenting Cheryl L. West's electrifying Fannie Lou Hamer: Speak on It!, a new play with music about the civil rights icon and voting rights leader.

The digital event will kick off with a performance at 7 p.m. on Friday, October 23, and continue through October 26, according to Courtney Sale, Nancy L. Donahue Artistic Director, and Bonnie J. Butkas, Executive Director. MRT had hoped to present the work live outdoors, in front of the theatre, but the spike in coronavirus cases in Lowell necessitated a move to video only.

Yewande Odetoyinbo will play Fannie, and Andrés Amitai Wilson will accompany her on guitar, as well as serve as Music Director and Arranger. Malika Oyetimein will direct.

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Sale said, "We are honored to bring Fannie's words to life in our first act of gathering as community since February. MRT has taken every precaution to assure the safety of our patrons, artists, staff, and volunteers. Cheryl's play allows us to celebrate this incredible woman who spent her entire life getting people to the polls. On the eve of this historic election, I can think of no better galvanizer."

Playwright West, author of Pullman Porter Blues, Before It Hits Home, and Jar the Floor, said, "We're afraid right now. The country is in turmoil. What (Fannie) came to say was that even through all of these challenges, if we stay a United States of America, we can get through this together. We have a moral obligation to speak up at what's wrong and to fight for justice. If I can get an audience to be inspired by her words, then we've come here to do what Fannie Lou came here to do."

The daughter of a sharecropper and the last of 20 siblings, Hamer did not enter the world of activism and politics until she was 44 in 1962 when she discovered for the first time that Black people had the right to vote. Any joy in that discovery was short lived as she was subjected to poll taxes, literacy tests, and harassment just for attempting to register to vote. She lost her job of two decades at a plantation for simply announcing she wanted to vote. During this period, she became actively involved in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and she began to blossom as an activist.

Over the next decade, despite attacks from the local and state government officials and the Ku Klux Klan, she charged forward fighting for voting rights, women's rights, and civil rights. She eventually testified before the United States Congress on national television. President Lyndon B. Johnson was so afraid of her testimony that he preempted the hearing for an impromptu talk from the Oval Office.

West said, ""We honor this woman that gave so much to us. I'm always been inspired by stories of unsung heroes, and this woman had just miraculous courage. Her favorite words of prayer were, "I arm myself with God," so she didn't have much fear. I was able to talk to her campaign manager, who is still alive, and I said, 'Did she ever show fear?' And he said, 'No, Miss Hamer didn't, but my knees would be knocking half the time.'

Hamer became co-founder of the Freedom Democratic Party and the National Women's Political Caucus. She retired due to breast cancer in 1974 and died in 1977.

The Goodman Theatre is currently touring the first abridged production in parks throughout the Chicago area. The Chicago Tribune said, "This electrifying rally defines what it means to be a true revolutionary." The full-length version of the play is a co-commission between The Goodman Theatre and Seattle Repertory Theatre. The Goodman hopes to produce the full play in the fall of 2021.

The MRT production of Fannie Lou Hamer: Speak on It! will be presented in partnership with Free Soil Arts Collective, MRT's Company in Residence; Lowell Community Health Center; and Boys & Girls Club of Greater Lowell.

Director Oyetimein's credits include Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (director and co-adapter) at Book-It Repertory; The First Deep Breath at National Black Theatre; and Bootycandy at Intiman Theatre Festival. She is a member of the Directors Lab at Lincoln Center Theater.

Well known to Boston-area audiences, Odetoyinbo's most recent credits include Hair at New Repertory Theatre; Moonbox Productions' Parade and Caroline, or Change at the Boston Center for the Arts; Little Shop of Horrors at Lyric Stage; and The View Upstairs at SpeakEasy. Acclaimed musician Wilson is a teacher at The Roxbury Latin School.