E. Faye Butler speaks out on playing Fannie Lou Hamer right now

"You can't take a role on like this as an actor, you have to take this role on as an activist."

“Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.” —Fannie Lou Hamer

Anyone who has ever seen E. Faye Butler perform knows that they are witnessing something truly extraordinary. A two-time Helen Hayes Award winner, E. Faye returns to Arena Stage to portray another spellbinding talent, civil and voting rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer in Fannie Lou Hamer, Speak On It!, adapted by Cheryl L. West from her play Fannie. The free, outdoor production runs from October 23 to 30, 2020. 

Fannie Lou Hamer (1917–1977) was a sharecropper in the Mississippi Delta from the age of 6. She was the youngest of 20 children. She knew hunger. Due to the limited education on offer, and the need to help her family financially, she had only a sixth-grade education. She suffered police violence, threats to her life, and profound personal loss. Yet in 1964 she co-founded and ran for Congress as a member of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). During the Democratic National Convention that year, she gave a speech urging party leaders to replace the all-white, Democratic delegation with a more diverse group, and to make integrated state delegations a requirement. This speech, which was beamed on televisions all over America, made her famous overnight.

Fannie Lou Hamer, Speak On It! is designed to inspire us just as Fannie Lou Hamer did: to get out there (or fill out our absentee ballots) and Rock the Vote! It is conceived as a rally, and features excerpts from Hamer’s speeches and the spirituals she loved to sing. Speak On It! is a call to action, highlighting the importance of our right to vote in the crucial 2020 election. Mrs. Hamer, as they called her, was always there to help those in need, whether it was a house, a job,  or just the strength to go on. This iconic, beloved civil rights leader shines the light of freedom for us all in the middle of a dark time.

We were fortunate enough to be able to interview E. Faye Butler the day after the Arena Stage opening.

E. Faye Butler (Fannie Lou Hamer) in ‘Fannie Lou Hamer, Speak On It!’ by Cheryl L. West, directed by Henry Godinez. Photo by Liz Lauren.

E. Faye Butler: What a story, an amazing human being, an unsung hero that most people never knew about. 

Sophia: And someone who found her moment.

Yes, absolutely. I think that the difference probably in Fannie Lou Hamer is that even though to me, she’s a major figure of history, she’s an unsung hero, and a lot of people don’t know about her. It’s daunting because you’re teaching people about someone that no one really knows about, and you have to be accurate in what you’re doing. Speak On It! is set up as a rally, and you have to study Fannie like she studied, and she studied by experience and by example. So you can’t take a role on like this as an actor, you have to take this role on as an activist, or you’re never going to get through it. You can’t question her, you have to question yourself and where you stand.

I’m stunned by the similarities between the Mississippi of all those years ago and today.

Right? Right. So all you have to do is live in the present. Hey, I can write from my own experiences right now, which makes it easier than it would try to relate something from the past, because that’s the whole point. This piece is about her coming back from, from wherever she is—the higher place—to right now, today, October 24th, to speak to us about how we need to stand up and be American and stand for what’s right. 

Her mother really inspired her, and despite her trials, she didn’t hate anyone.

Which is one of the things she said in many of her speeches, and one of the things that she would always say, because she did fight for everybody. A lot of people thought she only fought for Black people. She fought for BIPOC people, Black and Indigenous people, poor people, people of color, people that are forgotten about in America, no matter where they live, disenfranchised people, marginalized women that are forgotten about and children that go hungry. People that don’t have housing, who need jobs, no matter what their color, religion, or political affiliation.

She only had a sixth-grade education, but she wanted to make sure that according to the Constitution they had the ability and the right to vote and have a voice. It didn’t matter where you came from, who you were or where you were going. That’s what she wanted people to know. To stand up for yourself.

You can’t look at it from an acting standpoint. You can’t say, “I’m going to act my way through this.” Because you’ll be lost within 15 seconds.

This was important to me because it’s my way of putting my hand in the pot, putting my voice in the pot, saying, Look, guys, wait a minute. I’m an actor. But if I can get you to listen to this for five, for 40 minutes, just listen and inspire you, give you hope that you can go out there and feel good, even with everything we’re going through. That is what has worked for me. That’s what it’s about. Reaching out to other Americans and saying, Look, you’re not alone in this. You’re not in this alone. We have hope. Don’t give up. Don’t give up.

Absolutely. Do not give up. Don’t give up. She never gave up. She didn’t.

No, she never did, till the day she died. Cheryl and I talked to her aide from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Charles McLaren. He was the one who erected the Fannie Lou Hamer Cultural Center in her hometown of Ruleville, Mississippi. He always called her Mrs. Hamer, and he said she was the same person till the day she died. She passed out clothing. She fed people. She would help you find a house, or get a car, or go to college. Whatever she could do.

And she didn’t think she was important, but she used all of those people, like a John Lewis, like Dorothy Cotton, like Andrew Young, all those people to help those who needed it.

And then, on the way back from a voter registration workshop, she was arrested and beaten so badly by police that she ended up with a limp and lost her vision in one eye. She suffered permanent liver damage. And Medgar Evers was killed while she was in jail.

She and Medgar were best friends. She could talk to him like we call a girlfriend and say, Hey, how are you doing? Let’s go to lunch. They were in the same class.

After that beating, she couldn’t wait to get back home, but she had to stay at somebody’s house for like a week because she didn’t want her husband and children to see her like that. She wanted to wait till the swelling went down. She wanted to pull herself together because she knew she would never be the same physically. She had to look the best she could, so they wouldn’t be so terribly afraid when she walked in the door. 

They had already given her what they call a Mississippi appendectomy. While undergoing surgery, she had a hysterectomy without her consent. She and her husband Perry “Pap” couldn’t have children, so they had adopted two girls.

She had adopted these two girls and she was raising them and there was no way she wanted to go home yet to her husband whom she absolutely adored. She waited until she could walk a little better, and so they couldn’t see all the scars on her. And when she healed up, that’s when they had to tell her about Medgar. Oh my God. That was the last thing they told her before she went home. 

And the amount of violence that she endured. Sixteen bullets were shot into the home of friends where she had stayed right after she left. And the people in SNCC risked their lives again and again, and some died. During Freedom Summer 1964 there were the murders of the three civil rights workers, Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) members Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman.

She knew those boys. They taught one another songs. Those were her babies. Oh my God. She was the oldest one in the group. She was 44 when she started. She was always the oldest one. That was interesting too. She didn’t know she could vote. She was 44 when she just happened to go to a meeting one night and they told her she could vote. She said, I can vote. What does that mean?

And she was like six or something and she was playing in the road. And the plantation owner drove up to her and asked her if she could pick cotton. And she said, “I don’t know.” And he said, “I will give you things from the commissary store,” and he mentioned things like Cracker Jacks and sardines. And that’s when it started.

Yeah. And she never stopped.

And sharecropping was just a form of slavery.

It’s a new name for slave: sharecropper. Because you still lived on the plantation. You still didn’t own anything. And you still had to go to the commissary and get everything from the people in there. And then her plantation was Marlow Plantation. So she still had to be there and she worked, you know, 12 to 16 hours a day picking cotton. She worked alongside her mom and her dad.

And like you, music was a strong influence for her. Was that a connection for you?

Not as big a connection for me as what she did. She sang what she knew, and what she knew was spirituals. She never went outside of what she knew. She was just doing what she knew how to do.

Faye Butler in ‘Fannie Lou Hamer, Speak On It!’ by Cheryl L. West, directed by Henry Godinez. Photo by Liz Lauren.

You mentioned in a television interview that you didn’t realize what a feminist she was. 

I don’t think she even knew that she was at the time, but she worked very, very, very hard to make sure that women had equal footing. She ran for Congress. She ran for the Senate, and she believed women should have equal rights and equal footing. It shouldn’t make a difference about you being a mother or any of that. Women are strong. We are the backbone. That’s why a lot of times women were put in the background. I think people thought she was a passive person and she wasn’t, that’s a misconception. She was very gracious, but she was a fighter. She was a scrapper. And so I think that she stood for women and she didn’t care who, what, when, or where they came from; she thought women should have equal rights and should be able to speak their voices.

And she didn’t want a man around her that wouldn’t walk side by side with her, for the things she believed in. It didn’t have to be what he believed in because her husband, that’s what she loved about him most. I was speaking to someone, a couple of weeks ago, who grew up as a child being mentored by her in Ruleville, Mississippi. And one of the things that young man said to me—well, he’s not young now—but one of the things he said to me growing up as a child, he said, Mrs. Hamer was the one that would come and tell my mother that she didn’t have to take that crap. She would defend women in ways that a lot of people wouldn’t defend them. And her biggest thing was you can’t be the boss of me in the house and march with me for justice in the streets. That ain’t a man.

And she would always tell white women, Look, we’re just the same. And one of her most famous quotes that she would say to women is: I don’t care how much money you make. I don’t care how big your house is and how many times I have to clean your house to see mine. I believe we have more in common than not. I believe if all women hook on to each other, we can become one hell of a voting majority. We all are women, mothers or not, we bleed the same blood. We have the same salty tears about our children

In this country we need to connect. Yeah. And we would be a power that men could not be. 

I also think it’s remarkable given, you know, that she was surrounded by all those men, that she never catered to them. 

That’s why she loved her husband so much, because he understood that about her. They had a beautiful, beautiful relationship. 

The We See You, White American Theater movement, speaking  as the global majority, has demanded, among other things, “a bare minimum of 50% BIPOC representation in programming and personnel both on and off stage” and “safe and exclusive affinity spaces for BIPOC protection inside all institutions.”  What are your thoughts on that, and what do you think Fannie Lou would say?

I think all voices need to be heard. And I think that it’s time we have to reexamine this as a nation, because systemic racism is something that we’ve all been taught. We’ve all been conditioned to this. And so it’s going to take time for all of us to get a handle on it and learn that we have to begin to reverse that or begin to understand what it is—unless you’re just one of those people who don’t want to. It might be hard for a lot of people to hear some of the demands. But what I always encourage people to do is, don’t think like you’re losing something.

You have to look at it as you’re gaining something, because there’s much insight that a lot of people have never been privy to because those doors were closed to them. We don’t even know the wealth of beautiful words and encouragement and artistry and learning that we will have when we open the conversation up to all of humanity and not just the select few. It’s not a negative thing. It’s about being inclusive. And because it seems so strong to people that are not used to seeing that wording, it just means giving equal footing. We’re not throwing anybody out of the water. What I’m saying is we’ve got to make the pool larger now, so we can invite other voices. That’s what we need to do. I don’t want to take anybody down.

You’ve got to bring in the country, the nation that sits in front of you. You have theaters that have a 80 to 90 percent, you know, European American face. It doesn’t really represent the country. And so if you’re marketing to a certain group, then that’s the group you’re going to get. 

But wouldn’t it be lovely to be able to go into a theater and see the country sitting in the theater, the country you actually operate in on a day to day. That’s what people want to see. There’s so many stories out there that a lot of people have never heard that I haven’t heard of. When I hear an American story or I hear a Native American story that I have no knowledge of, I’m in awe.

Me too. Culturally, there’s so much to be gained. We’re adding, not subtracting.

Some people say, Well, you just want to get rid of people. I say I don’t, I don’t want to get rid of people. I want to add to the conversation. I want to widen the pool, let more people in.

Also, theater has been in many ways a luxury, and it needs to respond to people’s real needs. That’s what the BIPOC Demands for me are all about. If we’re to go ahead as a nation, this is what we must do. Theater must do it just like everybody else.

It’s a big learning curve, and you just cannot stay on automatic pilot at this point. And when it comes to BIPOC, I want to help, but I’m not sure how. The truth is, I should know.

It can’t wait. I think what people have to do is learn that. And I tell a lot of people that what you can do is be an aid, and you can get information on your own that will make you a better asset to people. That’s what you can do because we all have to learn. I’m learning, right. There are things that I did, you know, six, or seven months ago that I check myself on now. I mean, we’re all in the learning process. It’s not just one-sided. And I think people have to be honest with themselves about that.

How we approach people, how we talk to people, how we look at things, doesn’t have to be this one way. There is another way to do it. I think we’re all in a learning moment. And so I tell people, Give yourself credit for at least being in the process of acceptance and wanting to learn, instead of putting yourself in a position where you felt “what do I do?” You’re learning as you go, because you’re asking the questions, and those are the things that make us move forward, having the conversation.

Felton Offard (Music Director- Arrangements) and E. Faye Butler (Fannie Lou Hamer) in ‘Fannie Lou Hamer, Speak On It!’ by Cheryl L. West, directed by Henry Godinez. Photo by Liz Lauren.

You have said that Fannie is with you every night. And I believe you.

Well, it is a rally. And it is her words. Besides a few things that Cheryl has done here and there, she just crafted her various speeches and quotes. So it’s not like she wrote a script that was separate from who Fannie was. It is Fannie speaking to you through the vessel, the vessel than I am. And you know, in a way that’s kind of more than acting really. It’s on another level. That’s why I said you can’t depend on the singing.

I’ve had other actors doing this role call me and ask, How are you doing this? And to some I say, You’re working too hard. You’re trying to make it something that it isn’t. What I encourage you to do is learn her language. Learn her language and learn her words. And you’ll be fine.

Her language reminds me of Shakespeare. The depth of it.

Absolutely. It’s a language all its own. I guarantee you. You have to learn the language. It’s fascinating because, you know, it’s similar to the way people play Shakespeare.

I didn’t want to end this interview without bringing up COVID. How has it affected you as an artist, and how do you think it affects the community?

Fannie gave me an outlet to be able to work on things that I hadn’t worked on a long time as an artist, because, you know, we all want to work and we’ve all got great things to do, but it’s a challenging time and it’s a hard time. And so I encourage everyone during this time when a lot of us are not working and so much stuff that’s going on is that we just have to keep at it. We have to keep trying, we can’t give up. That’s what we have to do. So yeah, it’s affecting me, but then it brought me Fannie. I mean, this has been a gift, and I probably wouldn’t have had this gift. So I have to look at things like that and say, Yes, goodness, it’s inspiring too.

I just want us to stay connected. We’ve got to learn to love each other with all of our different qualities. Okay. That’s the difference. We’ve just got to learn to love each other and embrace each other. That’s all. That’s it. 

Fannie Lou Hamer, Speak On It! runs October 23 to 30, 2020, at Transit Pier Floating Stage at The Wharf (970 Wharf Street SW); Monday to Sunday at 5:30 p.m. with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 1 p.m. A limited number of standby tickets are available for each performance and may be reserved onlineStandby ticket holders will check in at the event and will be asked to wait until the beginning of the performance and will be directed to an available seat if one is open.

Arena Stage is taking numerous steps to ensure the safety of artists, staff, and audience members. Heightened cleaning procedures and sanitizing stations will be in place. Temperature checks will be required for all artists, staff, and audience members. Masks will be mandatory. For a full performance schedule and more, click here.

SEE ALSO: E. Faye Butler to rock the vote as Fannie Lou Hamer at Arena Stage

E. Faye Butler. Photo by Rob Riddle.

E. Faye Butler returns to Arena Stage, where she most recently appeared in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel. Previous Arena credits include August Wilson’s King Hedley IISmokey Joe’s Café Pullman Porter BluesTrouble in MindRodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!CrownsAin’t Misbehavin’:The Fats Waller Musical and Polk County. Butler performs in regional theaters across the country including Goodman Theatre, Steppenwolf Theatre, Court Theatre, Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, Baltimore Centerstage, La Jolla Playhouse, Marriott Theatre, Paramount Theatre, Pasadena Playhouse, Mixed Blood, Illusion Theatre, Signature Theatre, Olney Theatre, Yale Repertory Theatre, The Muny, St. Louis Repertory, Seattle Repertory, Drury Lane Theatre, Congo Square, Fulton Theatre, MSMT, Sacramento Music Theatre, Northlight Theatre, Victory Gardens Theatre, The Barn, The Kennedy Center, Arkansas Repertory, Chicago Children Theatre, Philadelphia Theatre Company, Porchlight Music Theatre, Shakespeare Theatre D.C., Milwaukee Repertory, Peninsula Players, Paper Mill Playhouse, Dallas Theatre Center and ASOLO Repertory. She is the recipient of nine Jeff Awards, four Black Theatre Alliance, an After Dark, John Barrymore, RAMI, two Helen Hayes, two Black Excellence, Kathryn V. Lampkey, Ovation, Excellence in the Arts, 2016 Rosetta LeNoire, Sarah Siddons Leading Lady and Guy Adkins Awards. She was also named a 2011 Lunt-Fontanne Fellow. She was inducted into the National Women in the Arts Museum in Washington, D.C. and recently released her first House and Club single in Milan, Italy, “Down to the Rhythm.” She is a proud AEA member.

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Sophia Howes
Sophia Howes has been a reviewer for DCTA since 2013 and a columnist since 2015. She has an extensive background in theater. Her play Southern Girl was performed at the Public Theater-NY, and two of her plays, Rosetta’s Eyes and Solace in Gondal, were produced at the Playwrights’ Horizons Studio Theatre. She studied with Curt Dempster at the Ensemble Studio Theatre, where her play Madonna was given a staged reading at the Octoberfest. Her one-acts Better Dresses and The Endless Sky, among others, were produced as part of Director Robert Moss’s Workshop-NY. She has directed The Tempest, at the Hazel Ruby McQuain Amphitheatre, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Monongalia Arts Center, both in Morgantown, WV. She studied Classics and English at Barnard and received her BFA with honors in Drama from Tisch School of the Arts, NYU, where she received the Seidman Award for playwriting. Her play Adamov was produced at the Harold Clurman Theater on Theater Row-NY. She holds an MFA from Tisch School of the Arts, NYU, where she received the Lucille Lortel Award for playwriting. She studied with, among others, Michael Feingold, Len Jenkin, Lynne Alvarez, and Tina Howe.


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