There’s a scene in the musical Fannie Lou that depicts a group of local racists complaining about emerging civil rights activities threatening what, for them, has been an ideal existence. Because of the artful way their prejudice is laid out and the catchy song the characters sing, this scene always has been a favorite among audience members. In past productions, the scene has been cast with all men. However, since there were not enough white male actors who could sing who auditioned for the DC production of “Scenes and Songs from Fannie Lou,” this scene was cast with all women. It didn’t make any difference. The scene was just as popular, the message just as scathing, the impact just as palpable, with the DC audience as it's been for audiences in other locations.
That’s one of the insights we received from audience members who attended our Washington, DC, performance of “Scenes and Songs from Fannie Lou” at the Anacostia Arts Center on July 21, 2015. The sold-out event was presented to mark the 50th anniversary year of the signing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act by President Lyndon B. Johnson.
In addition to a concert presentation of selected music and dialogue from the original musical Fannie Lou, the evening included a pre-performance talk about social, cultural and economic conditions in rural Mississippi during the early 1960’s – the setting of the musical. A talk-back session followed the performance.
Audience members were given index cards at the start of the event. They were asked to write down their impressions of the performance and to return the cards at the event's conclusion. Comments covered a range of topics, from prominent themes to characters that made an indelible mark to where intermission should be placed. Here are more of our DC audience members' insights and observations:
Scenes/Themes For the scene mentioned above, audience comments included this one -- “Really enjoyed this scene. It is very important to see this side. It touches upon reality in that era,” and this one -- “Mrs. Bedford’s [one of the characters in the scene] sarcasm was vicious.” Another audience member said that same Mrs. Bedford character “illuminates some/many of the attitudes of the era.” In addition to that scene, other scenes that made a distinct impression on audience members included one in which two characters relay a tragic incident. “Very touching,” said one audience member, who added, “Beautiful song.” Of the same scene, another audience member said it was “a good example of innocence in the midst of hatred.” One scene, which seems to have taken a while to catch on with audiences but was mentioned as a favorite by several members of the DC audience, involves civil rights leaders assessing Mrs. Hamer’s role in the movement. One audience member “really liked” the scene, while another appreciated learning something that “was new to me.”
Performers The entire DC cast – which consisted primarily of DC-area actors -- was praised for both their ensemble and solo work. “The ensembles offered diversity in the range of the actors’/actresses’ voices,” stated one audience member. “Good cast,” said another. “Really enjoyed the performance and singing,” yet another relayed. A typical comment was one made about a scene in which the characters Fannie Lou and Laura (excellently played by Nicole Spence and Ravenn McDowell, respectively) engage in light-hearted banter that soon turns into a serious exchange. “Really enjoyed the songs/singing in Scene 3. The voices were extraordinary,” a patron commented. Several of our patrons noted the “moving” portrayal of the character Junior (played by Malcom Stokes). Amanda Campbell, who played Pamela, was lauded for a “great job, beautiful singing.” And a scene between Sheriff Bedford (portrayed by Jacob Berger) and inmate Clarence (played by Niles Finklea) was described as “extremely powerful,” with “great acting.”
Fannie Lou Hamer Audio We’ve included actual audio of Fannie Lou Hamer for some of our productions, including the DC performance. We sometimes positioned it at the beginning, sometimes at the end. It was played towards the end of the DC performance. While audiences like hearing the audio, we’ve always had varying opinions on its positioning. The DC audience was pretty much split. “Audio: Great final touch and wraps up the story well,” said one audience member. Some echoed that sentiment, but others agreed with this observation: “Should play Fannie Lou speech … during seating.” And a few had thoughts similar to this one: “Some visuals (slides of scenes of the old South) may be effective either before, during [the performance] or during intermission; may be helpful in giving the audience a more concrete view of the times and places.”
Pre-performance Talk Before the performance, composer/lyricist Felicia Hunter gave a presentation about social, cultural and economic conditions in rural Mississippi during the early 1960’s, the setting for the musical Fannie Lou. The talk was lauded by audience members. “Enjoyed the summary at the beginning! (I love history),” stated one audience member. That comment was typical of other audience statements, but so was this one: “Wonderful presentation. At the very beginning – you need to INTRODUCE yourself!!!” Point well taken, says Felicia, who promises, thanks to this audience member and others with the same sentiment, to never again forget to introduce herself before beginning her talk!! :-)
As with all our audiences, we very much appreciate our July 21 DC audience, the wonderful reception they gave us, and the insights and observations they shared. It was a pleasure performing “Scenes and Songs from Fannie Lou” in the nation’s capital. Thank you for the opportunity!