Activism, music share spotlight in Fannie Lou Hamer production at IRT

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Fannie promo
Indianapolis artist Tasha Beckwith painted the promotional image for “Fannie: The Life and Music of Fannie Lou Hamer” that’s excerpted here. “Fannie” will be presented Jan. 9-Feb. 4 at the Indiana Repertory Theatre, 140 W. Washington St. (Image provided by Indiana Repertory Theatre)

With a new presidential election year underway, the Indiana Repertory Theatre is presenting the story of one woman’s historic quest to overcome discriminatory voting practices toward Black Americans.

“Fannie: The Life and Music of Fannie Lou Hamer” opens Jan. 9 at the IRT, where Maiesha McQueen will portray the Mississippi civil rights activist in a production that’s a one-woman play aside from a three-member band that accompanies McQueen when she sings.

Benjamin Hanna, the IRT’s Margot Lacy Eccles artistic director, said audiences should expect heartbreak, triumph and perhaps the atmosphere of a rousing church service when “Fannie” depicts Hamer’s struggles with unfair policing practices, literacy tests and poll taxes blocking the path to the ballot box in the early 1960s.

“There’s a call-and-response element, musically,” Hanna said. “The band is there to support Fannie’s story and to be witness, like we are witness to Fannie’s story. It really feels like a call in to us and a call out to us to think about how we’re going to use our voices at the voting booth at any given time as we’re thinking about being great citizens.”

Hamer’s activism put her life at risk, including a night when 15 bullets were shot into a house where she slept. On another occasion, Hamer was brutally beaten in jail after being arrested for sitting in the “white” section of a segregated bus.

Hanna said it’s important to note that Hamer’s story isn’t ancient history. When student groups attend “Fannie,” which runs through Feb. 2, part of the visit will include a mention of the history of the building at 140 W. Washington St.

“IRT was built as a segregated movie palace,” Hanna said, referring to the Indiana Theatre that opened in 1927. “When this place was built, if you were Black, you had to go in a separate door and you could not be present with white patrons. That’s something that we acknowledge, and it’s helpful for students to realize the building they’re in was not open to every one of them in recent times.”

Hamer’s speech at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, where she talked about discriminatory voting practices, is remembered as a key moment leading up to 1965’s Voting Rights Act signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson.

“She was such an incredible American and she so strongly believed in the promise of this country, no matter how hard it was to fight through all of the tape and the hardship,” Hanna said. “She believed there could be change in the structure of this country, and she saw it happen.”

McQueen Fannie
Maiesha McQueen will portray civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer at the Indiana Repertory Theatre. (Image provided by Indiana Repertory Theatre)

McQueen, a graduate of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, first portrayed Hamer when “Fannie” played the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2021.

Written by Chicago-based playwright Cheryl L. West, “Fannie” debuted in an abridged version in 2020. Audiences caught “Fannie Lou Hamer, Speak on It!” in multiple Chicago parks, where social distancing was easily achieved during the pandemic.

At the IRT, the “Fannie” band is made up of keyboard player and musical director Morgan E. Stevenson, guitarist and bass player Spencer Bean and Indianapolis-based drummer Dorian Phelps.

Although “Fannie” features songs, including “We Shall Not Be Moved” and “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize,” it’s not a traditional Broadway musical. In April, “Little Shop of Horrors” will fill that role as the first traditional Broadway musical staged by the IRT since a production of Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” in 2013.

‘Fannie: The Life and Music of Fannie Lou Hamer’

  • When: Various times Jan. 9-14, 18-21, 25-28, 30-31; Feb. 2-4.
  • Where: Indiana Repertory Theatre, 140 W. Washington St.
  • Tickets: $30 to $86
  • Info: Visit irtlive.com.

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