“Well are you welcome to the open air” (Richard III, Part One)
When I write for the Jefferson Journal, I am always aware of the time lag between composition and publication.
For example, between my conversation with Nataki Garrett in late February of this year, and the publication based upon that interview in May, many of her plans had had to change in response to the developing situation with the pandemic, and shows planned for the Bowmer were put on hold. In the past twenty-two months it has proved to be impossible to advertise any live events in full confidence that they would take place.
This article is largely based on the opening night of Fannie: The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer written by Cheryl L. West and directed by Henry Godinez. That took place in the Elizabethan Theatre on July 3rd, but it was clear by the end of the evening, for reasons I shall indicate below, that the circumstances of that performance would probably be changed within days.
Fannie: The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer is a one-woman show, charting the life of civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer which draws upon her life and her political speeches and incorporates fourteen musical numbers largely taken from the gospel tradition and from civil rights anthems. The ability of E. Faye Butler to sustain the role of Fannie for some eighty minutes was breath-taking, and the quality of her acting, singing and movement quickly allayed any fears that she would be dwarfed by this vast space. She was well supported by an excellent band of musicians, and by a lighting plot which complemented the action. After the creative team hones the production at OSF, this co-commissioned show will premiere at the Goodman in Chicago in October and at the Seattle Repertory Theatre in early 2022.
This was a keenly-anticipated premiere. There had been no performances on this stage since October 2019, and no OSF performances of any kind since March 2020. I was reminded of the similar level of expectation when Arthur Arent’s controversial political play Triple-A Plowed Under had its premiere in New York in 1936, and one reviewer wrote that the “actors were full of misgivings, the audience full of tension and the lobby full of police”. There were no police in evidence at the premiere of Fannie, but there was excitement and perhaps also tension, for this is a political play about the violent suppression of those who in the past have struggled against injustice. To our shame those struggles continue to this day and are not infrequently meet with violence: do not expect an entirely comfortable evening in the theatre, especially if you are white.
There were many ways in which this was a very different OSF experience from any that audiences have met in the past. Evidence of vaccination was required on entry, and we wore masks to our seats, although that requirement was not enforced within the auditorium (just as well since audience participation figured prominently in the show!). There were perhaps some 200 people in attendance, scattered across the theatre. There were no physical Playbills (a Digital House Program was sent via email to ticket-holders) and no concessions were open. My assumption is that none of the ushers was a volunteer.
There was a rather downbeat and slightly puzzling opening to the proceedings. Recorded music, much of it rap music, was playing for some thirty minutes before the show began and the traditional fanfare and hoisting of flag abruptly cut into this music which resumed again just as suddenly as soon as the flag was aloft. Moreover, before the performance itself, there was only a recorded welcome from Nataki Garrett, and no live introduction to this historic occasion.
However, all that was put right after the show. There were speeches by Executive Director David Schmitz and by Nataki Garrett, expressing their excitement at the reopening, and their gratitude for those who had made this possible.
This proved a better way of celebrating — since we were not kept waiting to see the show — and of delivering the important news that the Elizabethan Theatre was expected to be completely open within days. Fannie would be playing to full houses!
By the time you read this, Greta Oglesby will have taken over the role of Fannie and the show will run unit October 9, Thursday to Sunday each week, with musical groups each Wednesday — or at least that’s the plan as I write in early July, but, as we know, anything might happen!
Geoff Ridden has taught in universities in Africa, Europe and North America. Since moving to Ashland in 2008, he has become a familiar figure on radio, in the theatre, in the lecture hall and on the concert stage. He is artistic director of the Classic Readings Theatre Company and has a particular interest in adaptations of the plays of Shakespeare. Email firstname.lastname@example.org