During the run of Fannie Lou Hamer, Speak On It!, Chicago-based writer, artist and educator Elon Sloan sat down with playwright Cheryl L. West and actor E. Faye Butler to discuss the play’s development and their collaborative relationship.
Elon Sloan: I am so excited to talk to both of you about Fannie Lou Hamer: Speak on It! I would love to hear about the beginning of your relationship to the project, E. Faye and for you, Cheryl, the genesis of the play.
E. Faye Butler: Well, the beginning for me is with Cheryl. So, I’ll start with Cheryl! We have a relationship that we’ve developed, going back, almost seven or 10 years. I was fortunate enough to meet her then with a play that she wrote called Pullman Porter Blues and we kind of clicked.
Cheryl L. West: Yes, that’s exactly how it happened! I think we did Pullman in 2012 or 2014 and then we did Last Stop on Market Street. I was on another project that was going to be a musical. It was looking at Freedom Summer and I came across some information on Fannie Lou Hamer. I knew about Fannie Lou Hamer, but I didn’t know about Fannie Lou Hamer. The more I did the research, I thought, “Boy, that’s a real play right there!” This woman was ferocious and so incredible. I said, hmm, I think this would make a great one woman play about Fannie Lou Hamer and [I can] use the freedom songs from the civil rights era. I thought, I know the person, the best person, to do this. Somebody that could see it, act it and reach across those footlights and keep an audience enthralled. That was E. Faye Butler. I knew that Fannie Lou’s story had not gotten [enough] recognition, partly because in civil rights, the male leaders are always at the forefront. But, this is a woman who also put her life on the line. And I was so intrigued by that. I’m always trying to write stories about unsung heroes. I just loved working on this and we’ve had such a great time.
ES: I think that the focus on Fannie Lou Hamer, like you were saying, is so necessary. She is someone who, maybe people know her name, but don’t know a lot about what she has done. But, when I think of her, I think of somebody who reminds me of people in my family. My dad’s family is from rural Mississippi. They come from that history of sharecroppers and I know that that was another big thing that she talked about a lot.
CLW: You know, my family is also from rural Mississippi. Durant, Mississippi. I had my great grandmothers and my great grandfather—they all lived up until the late 90s. We would go every year, sometimes twice a year to visit. I’m from Chicago, so it was such a different way of life. But I was just so always intrigued by the way they could turn a phrase. There was such poetry and musicality in their language and when I was reading and learning about Fannie Lou Hamer, she had that same musicality, and cadence and. She was so dynamic in the way she would speak. I was really, really intrigued by that, because I’m always so interested in the way we use language as African Americans. People [think], if you don’t speak the King’s English, you’re not speaking well, but to me, I’ve always thought there was such beauty in our language. [I’m] trying to capture that in this piece, and also knowing that we’re all on a courage journey, right? I felt that I picked people to write about that helped me along my courage journey. And to me, she never gave up. She was so resilient. To believe in your mission, to the extent that she did—it asked all of us as artists: how could we do any less?
ES: For you, E. Faye, what was it like getting close to the role of Fannie Lou Hamer?
EFB: Well, you know, it’s quite daunting because you are dealing with a historical figure that is beloved. Yet, she’s a human being. And that’s the thing about it—it’s easy to try to want to act her, but you can’t act her. So there’s a great sense of vulnerability you have to have, when you’re even stepping into the shoes of Fannie. You have to have the truth and you have to actually like her. This is not a role you can take on and say, ‘Well, you know…’ You have to like her, you have to want to be her, you have to want to step in those shoes, because it’s not easy. As an artist doing this piece, you’ve got to release. You gotta let her take you. You’re not gonna take her.
ES: I love your way of putting it! I’m curious about the journey of how has the play changed over the time that you’ve interacted with it?
EFB: I think the thing is that it’s laser focused right at what we need right now. You know, her story is incredible. There are so many rich stories within it, that are embodied in the original 90 minute piece. But what I found that was amazing about doing it in the park is that this is laser focused on one specific thing and that is your right to vote. Right now, at this moment, what we want to get people to understand is people died for you to have your voice heard. She did it at 44 and put her life on the line and basically died for this movement at the end of the day. With permanent kidney damage, not being able to walk very far anymore, having a blood clot in her artery in her eye—ust all of these things and the anguish that she went through, she still kept helping. She still kept doing. She never let it go or gave up.
CLW: And it’s delivered so well. I would be remiss to not also mention that we were lucky to have a connection. Felton [Offard] set that up, with the man who was her campaign manager, because she ran for public office three times. He is still alive in Mississippi. He was very instrumental in getting the statue of her put up. He was like her right hand person. We got to talk to him and to ask him questions about her. Somebody that knew her, saw her almost every day—he talked to me about her favorite Bible verse, her favorite song. I asked him ‘Did she ever show fear?’ And he said, ‘Never.’ [Then] he said ‘But my knees would be knocking!’ Miss Hamer was just determined. She would say that prayer every day—it’s in the piece—from Ephesians—’I put on the armor of God.” He was just amazing. I wanted to know that we got her spirit right, and after listening to him, it was clear that we did.
ES: That’s amazing that you got to talk to this person who really knew her and feel her spirit through him. Because the play is taking place now and she’s speaking directly to the audience, there’s something really great about bringing an important historical figure to the present.
EFB: It feels good when you’re talking to the audience, but I think there is a very, very fine line. Because you can’t talk about their current events. It always goes back to Fannie Lou saying, ‘You’re no different than I was.’ We started this struggle, but y’all got to take this and move it forward now. We’ve been down this road before.
ES: So, this play is eventually going to come back and be at the Goodman… What are you excited about that future?
EFB: Audiences singing with me again! I’m looking forward to the audience being able to respond to me and talk to me. You know, openly sing with me to [learn the] freedom songs… I’m looking forward to that, because I remember what that felt like in that reading last year.
CLW: I agree with E. Faye. I think there is more to her story that we could not do in an abridged version. You know, just a lot of things that she was able to do with things that she encountered. [Like] the parts where she really helped develop Freedom Farm, which was to help people in her community. Once people started to vote, people started losing jobs, people could not feed their families, there was so much turmoil. She knew that the next step was really trying to give people a different quality of life and to help people survive. So you know, she worked with Head Start, she started a hog exchange, she helped build houses for people. And that’s Black and white [people]. She got lots donated. I mean, she was just amazing in what she was able to accomplish.
ES: Is there anything that you’re hoping audiences take away or that you’re hoping they consider before going in to see the production?
EFB: The only thing that I would hope people do is remember the rights that people died [for] so that we could have a better life. I’m not trying to tell you who to vote for. I’m trying to tell you, use your right. Your children need this, we all need this. We need to know our history and we need to use our rights.
CLW: I think for me, I feel the same way as E. Faye. And I also want people to be inspired to action, whatever that is. Of course, voting, but is there any small action? Is there anybody in your neighborhood you can feed? Or go to the grocery store for? Is there anybody you could help fill out a job application for or help a teenager get into college? What are the small actions we can do as a community, as a neighborhood for the cause? Fannie Lou was about empowering her neighbors and helping them along the way. So that would be what I want, people to be inspired to action.