by Amanda Ong
Until Feb. 12, Fannie: The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer is running at Seattle Rep in co-production with the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. The production is a one-woman show celebrating the life of Fannie Lou Hamer, the famed American civil rights activist. The show’s playwright, Cheryl L. West, is a longtime resident of Seattle and one of Seattle Rep’s most-produced living playwrights.
For West, the one-woman show is incredibly relevant today — and offers an intimate format for Hamer’s story. “It’s so immediate, and it’s in her voice,” West said in an interview with the South Seattle Emerald. “It’s not cluttered with other people’s narratives. I think that the audience leans into that story and questions — would they be as brave? What are they doing for their country? Hamer says in the show, ‘I never gave up on my country. And neither should you! Have we given up?’”
The result is a beautiful and inspiring story brought from history books onto the stage. More than that, as it asks us to consider our relationship to our identities and our homes in this country, it is also enacting a parallel story, as West has been able to produce Fannie in her own artistic home of Seattle.
A nationally recognized playwright, West has been produced across the country. And though she was born and raised in Chicago, she has made Seattle her artistic home for over 20 years, and it held a unique place in her career even before that. In Chicago, after working as a social worker and receiving a master’s in journalism, Wright began to write plays at a community level. Her first play, Before It Hits Home, was about a Black family dealing with AIDS back in the late ’80s. West submitted the play to the Multicultural Playwrights Festival, which was hosted at Seattle’s Group Theatre before it disbanded. She won the contest, and her career was launched here. Since then, Before It Hits Home has been optioned by Spike Lee.
In 1999, friends at the Seattle Rep invited her to permanently move to Seattle as an artistic home, and West has been here ever since. Now, 23 years later, a new play of hers lines Seattle Rep’s stage.
“I kept saying to myself, sometimes stories come to you at the right time, and because they’re there to illuminate something,” West said. “And I’m always looking at stories that have to do with courage. And I feel like [Fannie] came to me … to help me along my own courage journey, because she was such a courageous woman, and a resilient woman. And it’s been just an incredible journey. I’m humbled by her, her life.”
Fannie Lou Hamer’s story can be humbling to many. A more overlooked figure of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, Hamer was an activist, particularly for voting rights as a Black woman and mother. At the same time, being a woman, a mother, and a freedom worker in that era could be especially treacherous, and Hamer regularly received violent threats, and she was shot at and assaulted. “Those are big questions women have to go through, particularly women who seek public office,” West said. “And we’re seeing it here in this country again, that if you’re a public servant, you’re getting threats of violence. It’s 60 years later, we’re still dealing with these things.”
But it is exactly those experiences that have made Fannie’s story resonate so strongly — during political upheaval, stories of identity and struggle can inspire us as we navigate our own identities and power in society. “When we did it in Chicago, it was hugely popular with women, particularly Black women,” West said. “There was a certain sense of pride that they felt in watching the show. Because this was a woman who was a truth teller, a grassroots leader, one of the best our country’s ever produced, who had that sort of salty tongue that told you how it is, and what it is, but also had such determination.”
Though Hamer did not receive that kind of praise during her time, Fannie: The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer certainly encourages us to recognize her now. More than that, it asks us to look at a woman who, despite all, believed in her country. It asks us if and how we want to do the same thing — what does it mean to a modern audience to believe in the United States of America?
West says much of her writing approach has stemmed from her previous work as a social worker and a journalist. As a public servant, Fannie Lou Hamer’s story spoke to her. As a social worker, she had to know how to look at different sides of an issue to figure out how to assist the people involved. Journalism taught her how to write — and write quickly, at that. Her past work has informed her writing voice today, one that is unique and compelling.
West’s place at Seattle Rep reflects her singular voice, as well as Seattle Rep’s work to be inclusive. “I’m just, like, one story; there are thousands of stories out there to be told,” West said. “I think, though, it’s great when you have an artistic home, that’s such a wonderful blessing, because, you know, there’s a place to try something different. You don’t have to sort of stay in a pigeonhole.”
This position has allowed her to write for her community — the human community first and foremost, but especially stories that celebrate and legitimize the history of Black people. “We’re so marginalized in this country, and there’s so little opportunity sometimes to tell our stories,” West said. “So that has always been one of my missions, to sort of validate and legitimize the beauty and complexity of our lives.”
And there is still a greater message that West has to share through all of her writing to her community — both for the Black community and for her artistic home of Seattle at large. “I want to do stories that have to deal with how to have hope,” West said. “In the midst of despair, how to find joy, how to laugh, how to see a way through the forest. What is hope? What is perseverance? What is resilience? How do we express tenderness? And how do we get up after we have been knocked down?”
Amanda Ong (she/her) is a Chinese American writer from California. She is currently a master’s candidate at the University of Washington Museology program and graduated from Columbia University in 2020 with degrees in creative writing and ethnicity and race studies.
📸 Featured Image: E. Faye Butler in “Fannie: The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer.” (Photo: Liz Lauren, courtesy of Goodman Theatre)
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