I’d almost forgotten what a privilege it is to attend the opening night of a play.
After over a year of zero live performances at the renowned Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, the one-woman show “Fannie: The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer” recently opened the shortened OSF 2021 season.
The show, based on the life of Mississippi-born voting rights warrior Fannie Lou Hamer, runs through Oct. 9. Accompanied by three musicians, the actress E. Faye Butler sings and powers her way through the groundbreaking — and heartbreaking — journey of this underappreciated activist of the 1960s civil rights movement. “Fannie,” by playwright Cheryl L. West, originated in Chicago under the direction of Henry Godinez.
My husband and I can brag that we went to university with the talented Henry, so we were delighted to spend time with him in Ashland. We got to catch up and reminisce and see his production of “Fannie." We are also longtime fans of OSF: We had already purchased tickets to the 2020 season when the COVID-19 pandemic screeched all performances to a halt.
Live theater effectively ended in March 2020, leaving actors, directors and every imaginable support person, from costumers to tech crews to box office personnel, without work. Theater companies could apply for financial help from the government and solicit charitable donations from supporters, but theater itself, along with music and dance and every other kind of live performance, went dark.
I realize that in the face of pandemic illness and death, this was not the world’s most immediate concern, but it was on the list of overall human concerns.
Because theater is in our genes. We are poorer without it. Theater entertains and edifies and enlightens us. The history of live theater is long and storied, from the Greek tragedies to the medieval morality plays, from Shakespeare’s peanut gallery to New York’s Broadway and every theater troupe in between.
I like to imagine that even before recorded history there were prehistoric stand-up comics, Neanderthals who labored to entertain a tough audience. We love the process of performance: We perk up when Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, in their backyard musicals, decide to “put on a show!” We tap our feet to Gene Kelly’s immortal “Gotta Dance!” routine. We get it. We gotta do it, too.
Along with the urge to put on a show, spectatorship is an innate inclination. Think of how we stop cold to watch events unfolding in real life, from mimes on a street corner to traffic accidents. We are ready observers. Movies, TV and the internet allow us to re-watch the performances we especially love, but live theater, with its alchemy between actors and audience, is a unique and fresh experience every time it happens.
And it’s back. What joy!
At OSF, we had to show our COVID vaccination certificates to see “Fannie,” and the seating provided for social distance in the outdoor theater, but we got to see a live play. Concerts and other performances are being scheduled and rescheduled around the country. While the future of the country’s progress against the further spread and mutation of COVID is uncertain, right now fully vaccinated people are able to revel in the return of performing arts.
“Fannie” was mounted as a traveling show on a flatbed truck in Chicago’s parks last fall and is currently being reincarnated in several American cities. The play is perfect for the moment: Its story of the fight for equal access to voting rights could not be a more pertinent message for today’s audiences. If the previously unknown story of a compelling character can move an audience toward empathy, “Fannie” accomplishes this beautifully.
In the OSF production, E. Faye Butler inhabits Fannie Lou Hamer in a way that brings us insight into her spirit, her sacrifice and her accomplishments in the face of daunting odds. Butler makes us cheer for Fannie and suffer for Fannie, even as she coaxes us to sing with one voice with Fannie. She also carries us to the recognition that Fannie’s work is ongoing.
The pandemic has shown us that normal life can disappear in a heartbeat, and a grim new normal can deprive us of all we have taken for granted, all we cherish, even our livelihoods and our loved ones. A cautious return to anything that was once familiar is cause for joy. Along with the return of theater, I find I am grateful for this year’s every small grace.