As ‘Fannie’ for True Colors, actress found out about civil rights activist and herself

In this Aug. 22, 1964, photograph, Fannie Lou Hamer, a leader of the Freedom Democratic party, speaks before the credentials committee of the Democratic national convention in Atlantic City, in efforts to win accreditation for the largely African American group as Mississippi's delegation to the convention, instead of the all-white state delegation. (AP Photo/File)

Credit: AP

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In this Aug. 22, 1964, photograph, Fannie Lou Hamer, a leader of the Freedom Democratic party, speaks before the credentials committee of the Democratic national convention in Atlantic City, in efforts to win accreditation for the largely African American group as Mississippi's delegation to the convention, instead of the all-white state delegation. (AP Photo/File)

Credit: AP

Embodying the civil rights activist in the one-woman show “Fannie: The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer” from Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre Company, actress Robin McGee said that she has been inspired by the hero’s perseverance.

“There’s one word to describe this woman, and it is ‘fearless,’” McGee said. “She was absolutely fearless.”

The show runs through July 10 at Southwest Arts Center.

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Robin McGee stars in "Fannie: The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer" at True Colors Theatre.

Credit: Courtesy of True Colors Theatre Company

Robin McGee stars in "Fannie: The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer" at True Colors Theatre.

Credit: Courtesy of True Colors Theatre Company

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Robin McGee stars in "Fannie: The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer" at True Colors Theatre.

Credit: Courtesy of True Colors Theatre Company

Credit: Courtesy of True Colors Theatre Company

Hamer began her fight in 1962 when she tried to register to vote in Mississippi. A Black sharecropper with a sixth-grade education, she was 44 years old when she learned she was entitled to that right. And when she was given a literacy test and then turned away, she vowed to return to the registrar every month until she became a voter.

Racists threatened to kill Hamer. She was imprisoned. She was harassed, kicked out of her home, fired from her job, shot at and almost beaten to death.

“I look at myself as Robin and think I would lay low for a minute if someone almost killed me,” McGee said. “But here this woman was, and she said, ‘Almost.’ That’s the key word: Almost. The fact that I’m still alive means that I’m supposed to keep going. That’s where her mindset was.”

Hamer registered to vote after passing a literacy test on her third attempt. And when government workers told her she had to pay poll taxes and acquire the receipts, she did. She fought every Jim Crow obstacle and worked in her community to encourage African Americans to vote. Working with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), she eventually co-founded the Freedom Democratic Party and spoke at the 1964 Democratic National Convention about her fight.

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Three Mississippi women, denied the right to go onto the House floor at the opening of the new Congress, pose Jan. 4, 1965, outside the Capitol. From left: Annie Devine, Fannie Lou Hamer and Victoria Gray. They are contesting the election of three Mississippi representatives. "You have no floor privileges," Capitol police chief Carl Schamp told them. (AP Photo/Dick Strobel)

Credit: AP

Three Mississippi women, denied the right to go onto the House floor at the opening of the new Congress, pose Jan. 4, 1965, outside the Capitol. From left: Annie Devine, Fannie Lou Hamer and Victoria Gray. They are contesting the election of three Mississippi representatives. "You have no floor privileges," Capitol police chief Carl Schamp told them. (AP Photo/Dick Strobel)

Credit: AP

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Three Mississippi women, denied the right to go onto the House floor at the opening of the new Congress, pose Jan. 4, 1965, outside the Capitol. From left: Annie Devine, Fannie Lou Hamer and Victoria Gray. They are contesting the election of three Mississippi representatives. "You have no floor privileges," Capitol police chief Carl Schamp told them. (AP Photo/Dick Strobel)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

At a time when voting rights remain at risk, True Colors artistic director Jamil Jude said in a statement that “Fannie” was the right show for right now.

“As access to voting comes under attack in 2022, this story is a reminder of the incredible courage and determination of those who vote and who gave their lives for the right to participate in America’s democratic process,” he said. “We hope that this timely production will educate and inspire our audiences to exercise their right to vote from the top to the bottom of the ballot.”

In her activism, Hamer would use gospel hymns and plain language to reach communities. McGee, an alto, performs several songs in between the 12 monologue scenes that make up the show, including the children’s song, “This Little Light of Mine.” That was Hamer’s favorite song.

“I had to re-evaluate ‘This Little Light of Mine,’” McGee said. “This is what I came up with. That light of hers. That light of Fannie’s that’s in all of us. That light came on for her when she went to a SNCC meeting for the first time and found out that she mattered, that she mattered enough to make a change. That was the lightbulb, so to speak. She’s going to let it shine by making change, going out there and knocking on doors, marching, giving speeches. She found out she had a light. Who gave her the light? God did. Beautiful, isn’t it?”

McGee moved to Atlanta with her mother in March 2021 from Seattle. Her credits in Seattle and Tacoma, Washington, include appearances as Anne Marie in “A Doll’s House,” Asaka in “Once on This Island” and Dee Dee in the world premiere of “Shattering.”

Her first role with True Colors was supposed to be as Lena Younger in the musical “Raisin,” yet that production was called off in December amid the COVID-19 pandemic’s omicron surge. The theater instead staged a series of readings in February, and McGee played a role in “Younger,” a new script from playwright (and ArtsATL contributor) Kelundra Smith.

Still, McGee said the one-woman “Fannie” — written by Cheryl L. West, directed by Joy Vandervort-Cobb and with music direction by Morgan Stevenson — has been a blessing from God. Aspects of her own childhood in Kansas have prepared her to play Hamer. Her family was musical, and her stepfather was a preacher who had her memorize and perform scripture at Sunday service every week when she was around 8.

She would procrastinate until the family was driving to church and memorize full King James Bible chapters.

“That drive took about a good 30 to 45 minutes, and I would memorize those scriptures, sitting in the backseat of the car in a hurry,” she said. “By the time we got to church for Sunday worship, I was ready to recite it. And that’s how I did that as a kid. That immediate learning of something really fast or a monologue really fast or learning a song in five minutes, that never left me.”

The moment she found out she was cast as Hamer, McGee began learning the script at home by herself before rehearsals even began. Once rehearsals started, though, it affected lines she thought she knew.

“When I was up on my feet, I started calling for stuff I knew like the back of my hand because of body movement and the blocking,” she said. “I had some frustrating days where I was calling for lines like crazy. God worked that out, walking with me and blessing my mind. And I grasped it, and I’ve got it now. My process involved reading that script in full like a book from front to end, really understanding the flow. Because I had memorized those lines, but that’s all I’d done: memorized lines. And that was ineffective for me.”

Connecting to Hamer’s emotions and motivations helped the actress navigate her way through the musical’s songs and stories.

“Fannie is with me,” McGee said. “I feel honored and blessed to even attempt to portray this woman. I’m so excited about it.”

The actress said she’s excited to share the story of Hamer’s life with new audiences.

“As many times as I need to do it, I’m willing to do it and tell the story,” she said. “Because let me tell you something: Growing up, she wasn’t in any of my history books. I’m livid that I did not hear about this woman until I became an adult.”

Hamer’s activism can still inspire people to shine their light and change the world, McGee said.

“Because what it’s done for me now, reading her story, learning her lines, learning her words and quotes, hearing what she went through, acting it out, it’s made me more bold,” she said. “I feel more bold just because I learned her story. And it’s over and over for me because of rehearsal. Just to be bold and not go for the okey doke in anything. In anything! That’s what Fannie Lou Hamer’s story has done for me. Just be bold in life and don’t settle for less. Know who you are. That’s a beautiful thing when you find out who you are.”

THEATER PREVIEW

“Fannie: The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer”

Through July 14. $15-$45. True Colors Theatre Company, Southwest Arts Center, 915 New Hope Road SW, Atlanta. 470-639-8241, truecolorstheatre.org.


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