Review: FANNIE at Goodman Theatre

Review: FANNIE at Goodman Theatre

E. Faye Butler is one of those performers who makes acting and singing look as natural as breathing. As strong-willed civil rights and voting rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, Butler knows she has audiences in the palm of her hand. And rightfully so! Butler easily glides between impassioned, sincere monologues and using her powerful belt and riffs to sing such notable songs as “This Little Light of Mine.” 

While Fannie Lou Hamer’s life and advocacy work are remarkable, Cheryl L. West’s playwriting for FANNIE (THE MUSIC AND LIFE OF FANNIE LOU HAMER) is straightforward. West’s script recounts the triumphs and tragedies of Fannie’s life, predictably swinging between the highs of her accomplishments and the lows of the blatant racism and violence she suffered. It all makes for a relatively formulaic one-person biographical play, but the infusion of Fannie’s music into the 70-minute play gives Butler an outlet to showcase all of her talents. 

The production design mirrors the event-focused nature of the script. Colette Pollard’s proscenium-style set allows Butler to remain front-and-center, with her band upstage (comprised of Deonté Brantley, Morgan E., and Felton Offard). The late Michael Alan Stein’s costume designs anchor the play in the 1960s, with polished looks for Fannie that suggest both her modest roots and her desire to appear formidable in her advocacy work. Rasean Davonte Johnson’s projections underscore key events and people mentioned in the play, sometimes rather squarely. 

Butler’s magnetism as Fannie is far and above the main reason to see this production. Working with director Henry Godinez, Butler has developed a rich and layered performance. Even when the script feels straightforward, Butler gives every moment the depth of feeling it requires. Butler also seamlessly transitions from dialogue to song and back again. Her vocal talents have always been formidable, and they are especially so in this production. She also underscores Fannie’s immense resilience. In the face of countless racist and violent episodes, Fannie held firm in her desire to secure voting rights for Black Americans, and especially, Black women. That advocacy work is, of course, no small feat, and racial inequities in the American voting system clearly still exist today. Butler’s performance wraps up Fannie’s determination, exhaustion, and frustration all in one. She’s a consummate professional, and her energizing stage presence is what makes FANNIE work here at the Goodman. 

FANNIE plays through November 21 at Goodman Theatre, 170 North Dearborn. Tickets start at $15. Visit or call 312.443.3800.

Photo Credit: Liz Lauren

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