Seeing Premiere Stages’ opening-night production of Cheryl L. West’s play “Fannie Lou Hamer, Speak On It!,” Oct. 15 at a tent on the grounds of the Liberty Hall Museum at Kean University in Union, got me searching YouTube later that night. I wanted to see if Hamer, a Civil Rights Movement leader from the ’50s and ’60s, was really as powerful a speaker as the play makes her out to be. Judging by the clip below, yes she was.
Rema Webb plays Hamer (1917-1977) in a production that marks Premiere Stages’ return to live programming after a hiatus caused by the pandemic, and is impressive in the role, managing to be a sly charmer, a firebrand activist and a testifying preacher, all at the same time. She never lets up in intensity even once in the course of the play’s one-hour running time.
Webb is joined by Kena Anae, who plays guitar and other instruments throughout the evening. Webb punctuates her talk with gospel songs and spirituals, and occasionally interacts with him as well. But the focus is almost always on her, and she is mesmerizing.
The weather was perfect on the night I saw the play, and audience members sat both inside and outside the tent — safely distant from each other and wearing masks. In the event of inclement weather the play, which is directed by Marshall Jones III, will be staged differently, so that the performers and all audience members will be under the tent. (The production runs through Oct. 18)
The set is decorated to look like Hamer is speaking at a voting rally. “People died so you can vote!” says one sign. And indeed, Hamer talks often about voting in the course of evening.
West has made some changes in the monologue to reflect the current political situation. “I had President Johnson. We ain’t even gon’ mention who ya’ll got,” mutters Hamer at one point.
She also says,”ya’ll got an election coming up that’s way too important to ignore” and talks about current voter suppression tactics, adding: “Come on now! I know what they doing ’cause they did it to us.”
Mostly, though, the play is devoted to her telling her life story, with an emphasis on her awakening as an activist. The play climaxes with Hamer’s harrowing account of her arrest in Mississippi in 1963 and subsequent beating while in jail. She never fully recovered, physically, from the ordeal, having eye, leg and kidney problems for the rest of her life.
“After that beating,” she says, “I knew nothing would stop me but death and I had already cheated that.” A cathartic version of the gospel song “I Know I’ve Been Changed” follows.
The show ends with a hopeful vision of a more united America, a mention of “my friend John Lewis,” and one more song, “I’m on My Way to Freedom Land.” And, yes, more exhortations to vote. Some things can’t be emphasized enough.
Remaining performances are scheduled for Oct. 16 at 7 p.m., Oct. 17 at 3 and 6 p.m. and Oct. 18 at 3 p.m. There will be question-and-answer sessions following the matinee performances on Oct. 17 and 18. Visit premierestagesatkean.com.
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