Solo True Colors show spotlights activist Hamer

Robin McGee plays civil rights activist and gospel singer Fannie Lou Hamer in the one-woman show “Fannie,” a True Colors Theatre presentation continuing through July 10 at the Southwest Arts Center.
Courtesy of Greg Mooney

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Robin McGee plays civil rights activist and gospel singer Fannie Lou Hamer in the one-woman show “Fannie,” a True Colors Theatre presentation continuing through July 10 at the Southwest Arts Center. Courtesy of Greg Mooney

Fannie Lou Hamer’s formal education only extended through sixth grade, she often noted, but she made up for that with an abundance of “good sense.” She spent most of her life in rural Mississippi, picking cotton on white plantations as the youngest of 20 children in a Black sharecropping family. As a late-blooming “freedom worker” in the civil rights and voting rights movements, from the early 1960s until her death in 1977 (at age 59), she also got into a lot of what her fellow activist John Lewis would later describe as “good trouble.”

Just as Hamer might appear a comparatively unlikely or uncultivated social and political trailblazer next to such polished and eloquent compatriots as Lewis or Andrew Young, so does her story seem to be relatively serious fodder for the sort of structured jukebox musical that “Fannie” fundamentally is. Written by Cheryl L. West (“Jar the Floor”), and interspersed with 10 or so gospel spirituals, the one-woman True Colors Theatre production is surprisingly slight in a number of ways.

Combined ShapeCaption
True Colors’ presentation of “Fannie” features Robin McGee as activist and singer Fannie Lou Hamer. Courtesy of Greg Mooney

Credit: Greg Mooney

True Colors’ presentation of “Fannie” features Robin McGee as activist and singer Fannie Lou Hamer.
Courtesy of Greg Mooney

Credit: Greg Mooney

Combined ShapeCaption
True Colors’ presentation of “Fannie” features Robin McGee as activist and singer Fannie Lou Hamer. Courtesy of Greg Mooney

Credit: Greg Mooney

Credit: Greg Mooney

Directed by Joy Vandervort-Cobb, and featuring a commanding performance by Robin McGee in the title role, the show is subtitled “The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer,” but it’s fairly skimpy on both counts. It opens from the pulpit of a Mississippi church, where Fannie begins to recount some of the highlights of her life, gradually stepping downstage to directly engage with the True Colors audience.

To one side of Moriah and Isabel Curley-Clay’s set is a sitting room of the house where she lived with her husband and their two adopted daughters. To the other side, music director Morgan E. Stevenson (on keyboards) leads a band that also includes Spencer Bean (guitar/bass) and Che Marshall (drums). The surrounding walls provide the backdrop for Bradley Bergeron’s typically fine projection design.

“Fannie” roughly runs a quick, brief 75 minutes, which doesn’t always allow for ample time to delve very deeply into some of the significant events that are, as a result, only fleetingly referenced in the script. Similarly, while they are well-delivered, most of the musical numbers feel like mere snippets of actual songs, essentially functioning as segues between this historical anecdote and that one. Among the more noteworthy gospel tune excerpts in the show: “This Little Light of Mine,” “We Shall Not Be Moved” and “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize.”

At times, Fannie —or West’s theatrical representation of her, that is — is prone to simply dropping famous names here and there (e.g., President Lyndon Johnson, assassinated NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers, or James Cheney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, the abducted and murdered “Freedom Summer” student activists). Much more revealing are the character’s first-hand experiences — refusing to give up the fight in exercising her right to vote in Mississippi, or retelling how she was jailed and brutally beaten during a South Carolina bus tour.

Her private role as a wife and mother remains vague at best. In one of her most personal moments, Fannie reflects on the tragic death of a daughter. The segment is poignantly played by McGee, but the script doesn’t set it up sufficiently. By basically making do with a passing mention of the young girl ahead of time, the scene somehow rings hollow, lacking the emotional pay-off it deserves, as if it were merely one more anecdote about a woman whose life was much more than just so many tidbits.


THEATER REVIEW

“Fannie”

Through July 10. 7:30 p.m. Fridays; 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Sundays; 11 a.m. Thursdays (June 30 and July 7). $15-$45. Southwest Arts Center, 915 New Hope Road SW, Atlanta. 470-639-8241, www.truecolorstheatre.org.

Bottom line: Simply conceived, moderately effective.