E.P. McKnight performed a one-woman play about the story of Fannie Lou Hamer, an important player from the civil rights movement at USM on Feb. 16 in celebration of Black History Month. Hamer’s story is captivating, and although Knight’s performance was passionate at times, her writing left something to be desired.
It was well attended, but many left in the middle of the performance.
The play opened with a weird, non-spiritual version of “This Little Light of Mine.” Hamer was integral to making this gospel song an anthem to the civil rights movement, so it’s clear why the gospel hymn was used. But with the technology available today, the overdubbed monotone synthesizer recording seemed out of place for that performance and did not set the right tone. McKnight herself came out of the crowd singing and dressed in her Sunday best as an elderly Hamer.
Hamer’s story was told utilizing flashbacks, and McKnight slowed the pace by constantly reciting names and dates. These facts mights be interesting to someone with an intimate knowledge of the laws and major players of the movement, but it derailed the emotional intensity of the story.
The story took a serious turn when Hamer started explaining the opposition she encountered and the subsequent threats and violence when she attempted to register to vote. Hamer became very upset retelling the travesties she had endured and she started talking at a rapid pace. Parts of the story were lost when her speech sped up, due to the inflection McKnight put on for the play.
The most powerful moment of the play was Hamer recounting every single moment of her experience in jail to important lawmakers. She re-enacted word for word and lick for lick almost dying in that jail cell. It was intense and easy to forget that we were in a performance and not actually witnessing this speech in 1965. The pain in her voice was palpable and you could hear a pin drop in the lecture hall.
It’s difficult to comprehend how far this country has come if you hadn’t lived through that part of our nation’s history, especially now that we’ve come so far as to even have an African-American president. A woman was nearly beaten to death in order to exercise her right to vote, and it’s something that many Americans take for granted today.
Hamer’s story is incredible, but between the unintelligible rants, the distracting names and dates, and the extended cut of “I Have a Dream,” this play came short of capturing the intensity of her story in its entirety.