Review: ‘Fannie: The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer’ at The August Wilson African American Cultural Center

Robin McGee’s performance is nothing short of stunning. She does not play Fannie; she becomes Fannie.

By Jessica Neu

Historical narratives surrounding African American injustice and equality are commonly told across environments. Tales of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X have become familiar knowledge tales of heroic strife. 

However, countless other lesser-known African American trailblazers dedicated their lives to ensuring a better tomorrow for future generations. Highlighting one of these lesser-known stories, The August Wilson African American Cultural Center in conjunction with City Theater Company and DEMASKUS Theater Collective, presents Fannie: The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer. Written by Cheryl L. West and directed by Joy Vandervort-Cobb, this dynamic show masterfully details Hamer as a courageous freedom fighter who defied all odds to become a registered voter, leader, friend, and influencer in the face of intolerable scrutiny across a horrific, prejudiced Mississippi Delta and beyond.

Robin McGee

Robin McGee returns to the role of Fannie after portraying this fierce lady in Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre in Atlanta. Robin’s performance is nothing short of stunning. She does not play Fannie; she becomes Fannie. With direct eye contact toward audience members and an invitation to join along in hymns of love, McGee pulls audience members into Fannie’s story. For 90 minutes, you are there with her. Fighting. Loving. Hurting and Hoping. 

McGee delivers a performance rich in the African American tradition of prophetic preaching. Throughout African American’s turbulent history, pastors adopted the art of prophetic preaching, which allowed them to use a rhetorical style that humanized all bodies and spoke of divinity related to freedom and justice for all people, not just the privileged or white. In other words, prophetic preaching relays a message of tenacious hope in the darkest of times that helped African Americans believe in the promise of a better tomorrow with freedom and justice on the horizon. Fannie represents determination, courage, faith, and love, but above all, hope. In her house, when she dodges gunshots and smoke bombs, she speaks of hope. In church, when she preaches messages of unity and love, there is hope. When she is in jail, nearly beaten to death, she still turns to the Lord and has hope. Traveling throughout the country, speaking at colleges, and even at the Democratic National Convention, Fannie is palpably and tenaciously hopeful that the simple difference of skin color can be overcome to remove such deep hatred in so many hearts for Fannie has love in her heart for all people. Even when calling forth the unreflective privilege of white women who fought endlessly for the right to vote and equality among men and then hired African American women to clean their homes and work in their fields, Fannie had love and hope. And when recognizing the hypocrisy of Christians claiming to love everyone but then denying African Americans basic fundamental rights, her hope allowed her to persevere. 

Three musicians, Morgan E, Spencer Bean, and Dennis Garner, support McGee’s powerful vocals through familiar songs such as “This Little Light of Mine,” as audiences are encouraged to sing along and revel in that sense of promise and hope. A large white cone akin to a Klan hood perched atop one of the ledges stage left serves as an omnipresent reminder of ongoing white privilege that Fannie worked tirelessly to overcome. McGee delivers Fannie’s dream of a time when all people can be genuinely free despite the uncertain promise of change with grace and veracity. For Fannie, hope represented that the possibility of overcoming oppression was possible. She recognized that she was not alone and was a part of something bigger and more significant than herself. 

Some moments in the show will make you reasonably uncomfortable, some moments will make you tear up, and others will make you laugh and rejoice. 

Fannie Lou Hamer’s daughter, Jacqueline Hamer Flakes, addresses audience at opening night of the show about her mother.

After the show’s powerful conclusion, audiences were honored with the presence of Fannie’s youngest and only surviving daughter, Jacqueline Hamer Flakes, who spoke after the curtain call. This performance was her first time seeing any production of this show. As she was humbly emotional, Hamer-Flakes spoke about more specific and intimate details of her mother’s life. Her tales of a forced hysterectomy, the death of her older sister, and life at home touched the audience in a profoundly poignant manner. It was truly an honor to hear Hamer-Flakes’ speech and also inspiring to know that she continues her mother’s activism to this day as she has continued the Head Start program, supporting children through a preschool program, among other triumphant initiatives. 

Fannie is more than a show. It is a life, it is emotion, it is frustration, it is love, but above all, it is hope. 

August Wilson African American Cultural Center, City Theatre Company, and DEMASKUS Theater Collective present: FANNIE: The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer. Produced in partnership with Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre Company (Atlanta, GA) and Actors Theatre of Louisville (Louisville, KY). At the August Wilson African American Cultural Center. Performances through January 16, 2023. For tickets visit: https://trustarts.org/production/84136/list_performances

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