Tramaine Berryhill's set for The Fannie Lou Hamer Story is a strange stars-and-stripes affair — all wood, all old-looking, all dusty. The designs are big and loud, but the colors are faded; it's the kind of structure out of which ghosts of old carnival barkers might step. The platforms upon which Hamer will stand are at weird angles to one another and connected by discreet staircases. Seeing the set and appreciating its oddness, you might hope Fannie Lou will be as haunted and surrealistic as The M Ensemble's last production, the devastating From the Mississippi Delta.
The expectation holds as the show begins, when actress/writer mZuri steps onto the stage looking like she's just been dragged from a coffin. This, she explains, is exactly what's happened: Fannie Lou has been brought back because she has something valuable to share. She probably would, too, if civil rights pioneers were in the business of coming back from the dead. Sadly, they're not. This is mZuri through and through, and mZuri is terrible. She's grim where she should be galvanizing, facile where she should be deep, wrong-headed a great deal of the time, and cursed with a delivery so plodding and dull she really does seem kind of dead.
Throughout Fannie Lou, there are tantalizing glimpses of the show that could have been: a straight bio of a fascinating woman, full of offbeat re-enactments of powerful moments from recent history that are already otherwise passing into academia or cliché.
This is the show Fannie Lou Hamer deserves, because she really is disappearing from the nation's collective memory. Hamer was born in Mississippi in 1917, the sharecropper daughter of sharecropper parents. Her life was difficult but largely uneventful until the age of 44, when she learned blacks had the constitutional right to vote. She had never voted because she had never registered, and she had never registered because of the same insidious, unofficial, and ubiquitous power structures that were designed to keep blacks disenfranchised all across the South. She marched to city hall to sign up, was arrested and beaten, and spent the rest of her life crusading for civil rights. She founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, scared the ever-living shit out of Lyndon B. Johnson, and got into a public row with Hubert Humphrey. She was brave, articulate, and by all accounts blessed with a powerful singing voice. She was also a batshit-crazy religious fundamentalist whose worldview was as misguided as her deeds were admirable. In terms of piety, she made MLK look like Christopher Hitchens.
This wouldn't be a problem if mZuri used her time onstage to reveal the good drama that lurks inside of every faithful biography, but mZuri is far too opinionated for that. Instead, she spends the majority of the show editorializing, instructing her audiences to take her ethical and spiritual advice out into the world and follow it to the letter. Channeling the silliest of Fannie Lou's words and precious few of her profound ones, mZuri credits the civil rights movement's successes to the Bible and blames slavery and racism on Biblical illiteracy.
Fannie Lou/mZuri is so god-crazy that anybody who knows better will have a hard time standing her. Early in the show, she asks, "Where does the Bible say, 'Let there be slaves'?" Well, if you must bring up the point, plenty of places — especially if your definition of slave extends to women who are "given" to their husbands and forced to do as they're told under pain of death. Even excluding women, as the Bible loves to do, one can't read too much of the Old Testament before stumbling upon injunctions like the one in Exodus 21:20-21, which says it's okay to beat your slaves to death, so long as it takes them a few days to die of their injuries.
You could forgive a slip like this one if it were an isolated incident, but it's not. Fannie Lou is filled to brimming with similar bullshit — much of which doesn't have anything to do with religion. Consider the moment when Fannie Lou/mZuri tell us that "men must make the decisions," or when she asserts that all humans descend from an African woman named Lucy. Lucy, please recall, was not a "woman" but an Australopithecus afarensis that lived more than three million years ago. The last common ancestor of today's humans lived roughly a million years later, and there is no evidence that any of Lucy's progeny survives today. If Fannie Lou ever said such a thing, mZuri should have struck it from the show; it serves no purpose, except to illustrate that one or both of the women never cracked a book about natural history.
Despite all of this, brief moments of light do peek through. Fannie's glowing description of her husband is both funny and relevant in a world of fractured families, and mZuri has a stunning voice. Occasionally she'll steer her monologue toward one or another venerable standard and redeem all the gracelessness of the rest of the show with an alto so sensual you can almost taste it. With that voice, she sings a dark, haunted "Strange Fruit" as powerful as any version I've ever heard.
If mZuri can't pull together a good bioplay after eight years of tinkering (Fannie Lou originally premiered in 2000, under a different title), perhaps she should consider doing a live song-cycle. You don't have to think too hard to create such a thing, and even if you fuck up — say, by mangling the words to "Battle Hymn of the Republic," as mZuri did the night I attended Fannie Lou — you don't run the risk of placing credit for the civil rights movement in the hands of an imaginary god instead of where it belongs.
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