By Michael Buzzelli
Playwright Cheryl L. West takes an unflinching look at the life and times of an unsung American hero in “Fannie – The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hanner.”
Fannie Lou Haner (Robin McGee) was a sharecropper, who, at the age of 44, found out that Black People were allowed to vote in the state of Mississippi. She set off to register to vote and, the next thing you know, she became a leading figure in the Civil Rights Movement in the 60s.
Fannie circuitous route from her humble beginnings to her fight against Mississippi and the United States, et al, sounds like a superhero origin story.
The one-woman-show is told with song. The show never backs away from the more gruesome elements of the tale. America has an ugly history when it comes to Civil Rights. At times, it can be hard to watch McGee stand on stage and recount the more violent elements of Fannie’s past. It’s not for the squeamish.
McGee is joined on stage by the band, Morgan E. Stevenson, Spencer Bean and Dennis Garner.
McGee is charismatic, a powerful presence on stage, and the band is terrific.
The set, by Moriah and Isabel Curley-Clay, is magnificent in umber and burnt orange. The stage is enhanced by some fantastic projection design by Bradley Bergeron. At one point, a photo of Emmet Till drops in at the exact moment, stirring a flutter of turbulent emotions.
Note: The Civil Rights Movement started in the churches. At the time, the church was the only place to go for help if you were a poor and Black in the South. This show makes a lot of references to God, Jesus and the Holy Bible. At one point, the show seems to take on the energy of a big tent revival meeting, complete with call and response from the audience. It can be off-putting if you’re not a Christian.
While there are dark elements, the play is uplifting and joyous. Like a lesson from the bible, it starts off with some terrible injustice and bolsters you up with hope for the future with powerful words, both spoken and sung.
“Fannie – The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Haner” should be shown every election year. It instills the importance of voting and voting rights unlike anything before it. It is educational and informative, but, above all, entertaining.
It reminds us that we have the power to make America better than it ever was. We just have to keep our eyes on the prize: Liberty and Justice for all. It’s a perfect message for the Martin Luther King Weekend.
“Fannie – The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Haner” plays January 13 – 16 at the August Wilson African American Cultural Center, 980 Liberty Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15222. For more information, click here.