IRT to honor life and legacy of Civil Rights activist in upcoming play

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Nathan Garrison (stage manager), Maiesha McQueen (Fannie Lou Hamer), Henry D. Godinez (director), and Morgan E. Stevenson (musical director) in rehearsal for the IRT's 2024 production of “Fannie: The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer.” (Photo/Noelani Langille)
Nathan Garrison (stage manager), Maiesha McQueen (Fannie Lou Hamer), Henry D. Godinez (director), and Morgan E. Stevenson (musical director) in rehearsal for the IRT's 2024 production of “Fannie: The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer.” (Photo/Noelani Langille)

“Fannie: The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer” took the stage at the Indiana Repertory Theatre beginning Jan. 9.

Written by African American playwright Cheryl L. West, “Fannie” tells the powerful story of Fannie Lou Hamer and her struggles and victories in the fight for Black voting rights. The play is an intimate, first-person retelling, featuring Civil Rights era songs and spirituals. 

“I think one of the things that is unique about it is that it is both powerful in terms of its message, and it’s also very uplifting because of all the Civil Rights era songs and the spirituals,” said director Henry Godinez. “It’s got a strong social message, and it is really uplifting, and audiences, I think, leave the theater feeling really inspired.”

The one-woman show stars Maiesha McQueen in the role of Fannie Lou Hamer. She acts on stage opposite the audience as willing participants in what can be described as a “play with music,” where the musicians are onstage as part of the ensemble and song is used as a storytelling device rather than part of the plot.

This performance includes many firsts for McQueen. Although it is not her first time performing as the iconic Civil Rights activist, the IRT premiere marks McQueen’s first performance with the newly revised script and working with a primarily Black, female creative team.

“I think she’s an unsung hero; someone who should be taught about, and spoken about, and celebrated way more than she is,” McQueen said. “I wanted to learn more about her but also be a part of honoring her legacy. I also wanted to explore how she used music to facilitate her freedom work and also as a tool of self-care for herself and the community around her.”

For McQueen, embodying Fannie Lou Hamer is her way to honor the activist as an ancestor — to pay homage to the sacrifices she made to her family and health in her fight to advocate for justice.

“Fannie Lou Hamer said, ‘I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.’ And that is self-explanatory but, I think, also literal,” McQueen said. “I think, even today we just don’t take the pain and experiences of Black women seriously, because if we do, we have to examine ourselves and what we’ve done in order to cause that.”

Fannie Lou Hamer suffered physically and mentally in her activism. In the play, McQueen says the well-known line after Hamer is arrested, beaten and sexually assaulted in jail, which left her with permanent kidney damage and a limp.

Unlike film and television, where mistakes can be edited and scenes can be reshot, the theater is a wholly different space, Devon Ginn, director of inclusion and community partnerships, said in an email to the Recorder.

“Telling real-life stories through the medium of theatre arts creates an environment of deep listening and reverence,” Ginn said. “When the actor is on stage, she is witness to the responses of the audience, creating a powerfully intimate environment.”

However, theater can only have that desired impact if it is all inclusive, McQueen said. The IRT — which used to be a segregated movie theater and rests on land that previously belonged to Indigenous peoples — has come a long way in reconciling and making space for diverse individuals and stories.

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The IRT chooses its shows with meticulous consideration — both from staffers in the education, dramaturgical, inclusion, diversity, equity and access departments and the Margot Lacy Eccles Artistic Director and Managing Director, Benjamin Hanna and Suzanne Sweeney, Ginn said.

“Our initial conversations were littered with concerns about the script being too heavy for our audiences,” Ginn said. “Yes, there are joyous moments. Yes, Fannie is singing songs of triumph. But she was a product of sharecropping, abject poverty, and unscrupulous debt. With American history books actively being banned and burned, it’s up to the American Theatre to continue sharing our unsung heroes’ stories. Fannie is one of those heroes whose legacy we must steward with honor and integrity.”

Godinez echoed that sentiment and said Fannie Lou Hamer’s story is prevalent today due to the ongoing apathy and skepticism surrounding voting in the U.S. — something that nearly cost Hamer her fight for civil rights.

“Fannie didn’t realize she could vote, that she had a right, until she was 44 years old,” Godinez said. “It almost cost her her life, but she refused to back down. And at the same time, what’s unique is that Fannie never, ever lost faith in what this country stands for.”

However, what McQueen said she does not want is for people to hear Fannie Lou Hamer’s story and only think about the burdens she and numerous Black women have carried through history. Instead, McQueen hopes audiences examine their own lives and think about ways they can advocate for themselves and their communities.

“If you’ve never heard of Fannie Lou Hamer, this play is for you,” Ginn said. “If you’re well versed in the Civil Rights Movement and want to see her life unfold in front of you in real-time, this play is for you. This play is for you if you’re a parent, student, or educator. We want everyone invested in unpacking the nuance of the life of an American hero to be present for this agile production.”

“Fannie: The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer” is onstage at the IRT now through Feb. 4. The show has an approximate runtime of one hour and 30 minutes and is recommended for adult and teen audiences ninth grade and above. For more information about showtimes, a list of content warnings and to purchase tickets, visit irtlive.com.

Contact staff writer Chloe McGowan at 317-762-7848. Follow her on Twitter @chloe_mcgowanxx.