A little over 51 years ago, on Aug. 31, 1962, an African American sharecropper who had spent most of her life working in Mississippi fields traveled to her district’s county seat to register to vote. She was denied the right.So began the public activism of Fannie Lou Hamer, whose struggles for voting and civil rights spanned the next 15 years. This coming February, excerpts from a new musical inspired by Hamer’s life and work, written by Connecticut-based playwright/composer Felicia Hunter, will be presented in concert format on Broadway. The one-night-only special event also will serve as a benefit for the Yerwood Center, a youth service organization headquartered in Stamford.
“Scenes and Songs from Fannie Lou: On Broadway” will be presented Monday, Feb. 24, beginning at 7 p.m. Tickets are available online, at http://www.fannieloumusical.com/yerwood_center_tickets.
“I’m very excited about this performance,” said Felicia, who also is a journalist and has covered various municipalities in New Haven and Fairfield counties. “I’m especially excited that it will serve as a benefit for the Yerwood Center. That’s where the first staged reading of the musical was held.”
That was two years ago. Since then, the work had a second staged reading and an off-Broadway world premiere, both in New York City.
“I’m hoping for a Broadway run very soon,” Felicia said, “but in the interim we’re going to present the concert production as a special Black History Month event. Having it as a benefit for the Yerwood Center gives me an opportunity to pay back the center for all the support I was given early-on.”
The Yerwood Center has offerings such as an Extended Day Program that provides academic support and recreational and other activities for youngsters from kindergarten to fifth grade; academic and career development programs for teens; and skills-building employment and volunteer opportunities, among other youth and community benefits.
“It provides a host wonderful services to the community,” said Felicia. “But, like many nonprofits, funding for those much-needed services is constantly an issue. The help the center gave me, in providing a venue to stage the first phase of my musical about Fannie Lou Hamer is very much appreciated, and it’s a privilege for me to be able to give back with the Feb. 24 presentation.”
So why, in what some characterize as a post-racial society, would people want to see a musical about voting rights activities during the 1960’s?
“The action takes place 50 years ago, but the themes are very relevant today,” said Felicia. “I think that although we’ve made a lot of social progress over the past few decades, in some ways we’ve reverted as well. I think Mrs. Hamer and others who worked so hard for basic human rights would be quite surprised to see some of what’s transpired over time.
“Also,” Felicia continued, “you’d probably be surprised to learn that many people are not familiar at all with Fannie Lou Hamer and the voting rights struggle. Mrs. Hamer and people like her actually had to fight hard for the right to vote, and had their lives threatened because of it. Some even lost their lives. That’s something that some people today can’t imagine, can’t grasp. But the story needs to be told, and retold, and retold again, so that it’s never forgotten – and we don’t end up making the same mistakes over again.”
All right, but why a musical?
“I’ve always enjoyed music and other art forms,” said Felicia, who attended undergraduate school at Syracuse University -- where she held a dual major in mass communications and sociology -- and graduate school at Yale. A musician, she began studying viola in grade school and has played in various small and large ensembles. She also has studied several other instruments and is a trained vocalist.
“You cannot underestimate the power of art as a vehicle for change and enlightenment,” Felicia said. “When I see a movie or read a book, for example, in addition to being entertained, I take away with me whatever underlying social commentary the author conveys. I can agree with it or disagree with it, but I relish being exposed to a new and different way of thinking about or interpreting the human condition. It helps me grow as a human being.”
After reading a biography of Fannie Lou Hamer, (“This Little Light of Mine” by Kay Mills), Felicia began writing her musical.
“It started with just one song, then another, then another. Then the dialogue came,” she recalled.
Fannie Lou tells the story of Fannie Lou Hamer’s voting rights struggle through her eyes and the eyes of various fictional characters, who represent a variety of viewpoints. There are African Americans who are reluctant to become involved in the movement, and there are whites who are supportive of it as well as resistant to it.
“In hindsight, yes, of course we can say that the voting rights movement was on the right side of history,” said Felicia. “But with this, I wanted to explore the different viewpoints that were prevalent at the time. Everybody, even some African Americans, didn’t agree that they should push so fervently for voting rights. And while our image of the Southern racist can be quite overshadowing, there were a number of whites who stood up for voting rights -- and who suffered severely, even lost their lives, because of it. I wanted to present all of those perspectives withFannie Lou.”
Felicia is no stranger to bio-musicals. She’s appeared on stage, as part of an ensemble cast, in a work about the life of actress Frances Farmer written by the late Jack Eric Williams, a Stephen Sondheim protégé. That experience, she said, was key to opening the door for creation of her own original works.
“Working and rehearsing with Jack on a daily basis was really the catalyst that led me to believe I could write my own musicals -- just going through the creative process with him and being privy to his thought processes,” recalled Felicia. “I didn’t even realize his impact at the time. Writing musicals was the farthest thing from my mind. But years later, when I began to think about it, I wasn’t afraid to pursue it. That’s because of Jack. Not only being able to observe his talent and how he worked first-hand, but he was very kind to me. It was my first professional production, and he was very nice and supportive. It just goes to show, you never know the influence you’ll have on people.”
Although auditions are currently underway for “Scenes and Songs from Fannie Lou: On Broadway,” many cast members from previous incarnations of the production will be returning in February.
“I’m so happy about that,” Felicia said. “We’re going to have such a wonderfully talented cast for this. Audience members will be bowled over.”
In addition to the performance, a portion of the program will be devoted to an interactive discussion about Fannie Lou Hamer, the time period in which the action in the musical takes place, and the historical context of circumstances that impeded voting rights. Yerwood Center youth leaders also will make a brief presentation about their activities.
Tickets are available now. Yerwood Center benefit tickets for “Scenes and Songs from Fannie Lou: On Broadway” start at $75. To purchase a ticket, visit the Fannie Lou Musical website at http://www.fannieloumusical.com/yerwood_center_tickets.