Arena Stage’s first show in seven months is more than just a performance – it’s also a rally and call to action.
The true story of a powerful voice in voting rights, “Fannie Lou Hamer, Speak On It!” runs from October 23-30 at Transit Pier Floating Stage at The Wharf. Two-time Helen Hayes Award-winning actress E. Faye Butler plays Fannie Lou Hamer in this 50-minute show that serves as a reminder of how important it is to exercise the right to vote.
While Hamer played a significant role in advancing voter rights for Black Americans in the 1960s, her story is largely untold and overlooked. Butler believes that with the upcoming election, Hamer’s story is more important than ever.
“She gave her life to make sure that every person had a right to vote,” Butler says. “What an appropriate and perfect time for us to be doing a piece about a person that fought for the right for poor and BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and People of Color] people to vote.”
Although Hamer joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee at age 44 and was the oldest in the group, she worked with younger generations to secure the right to vote, which is why Butler believes Hamer’s speeches still resonate well with younger audiences and activists today.
“She’s speaking a language that a lot of us who are older have forgotten about because we have moved on. The young people are going to help us get through this.”
After a summer of unrest resulting from police brutality and with voter suppression a hot topic in light of the election, Hamer’s message does not just resonate with young people. Her speeches seem as if they could have been written on the issues Americans face today.
“A lot of the speeches you hear in this rally are her speeches,” Butler says. “You will have a sense of, ‘Could this have been written yesterday?’ That’s how far we haven’t come.”
The play is not only a reminder of why voting is important, but also serves as a resource for information about the November 3 election. The League of Women Voters will be at every performance to answer questions about voter registration and different options for voting in the upcoming election. By providing resources for audience members, this show tells Hamer’s story and continues her work by helping others register to vote.
“Fannie Lou Hammer, Speak On It!” is one of the only live, in-person theater productions running, as the industry was hit hard by the coronavirus. Changes for safety on both the production and audience side made this performance possible. With the help of the D.C. government and the Actors’ Equity Association, Arena Stage was able to put safety measures in place to protect everybody involved.
While actively rehearsing and performing, director Henry Godinez, music director Felton Offard, Butler and others involved with the production are tested two to three times a week. Butler comes to performances already in costume to avoid the need to sanitize a dressing room and wears her mask until the moment she steps onstage.
A Mayor’s Order requires anyone coming into D.C. from a high-risk state traveling for nonessential activities to quarantine for 14 days upon their arrival. Illinois is on this list, so Butler and the production team arrived two weeks early to quarantine.
To make sure patrons stay safe, the show will be performed at a small, open-air stage with the audience distanced from the stage and each other. Only 40 people will be allowed at each performance. The small audience size and distance from the stage might seem like a recipe for an unengaged and unresponsive audience, but Butler says this wasn’t a problem at the show’s opening run in Chicago.
“You get lots of energy from audiences because they haven’t seen anything in six or seven months, so they’re dying to be there.”
Butler predicts that the safety measures put in place are part of the reason the audience is so willing to come out and have an evening at the theater.
“To know it’s safe and socially distanced, that people do wear masks – this is the first [performance] that’s going to do that, and that’s a big deal for Arena. This is breaking ground.”
“Fannie Lou Hamer, Speak On It!” offers its audience entertainment, a history lesson, a safe environment and voting resources. Butler hopes it also offers a persuasive argument about why every vote matters.
“You have a voice, and it is important for you as a citizen of the United States of America to have your voice heard. No voice is too small. We are all in this together, and together this is our country and we have to fight for it.”
Performances of “Fannie Lou Hamer, Speak On It!” are at 5:3o p.m. on weekdays and at 1 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday from October 23-30. Learn more about this performance and Arena Stage’s upcoming productions at www.arenastage.org.
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