Playwright Cheryl L. West on the Legacies of Fannie Lou Hamer and Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Playwright Cheryl L. West doesn’t see herself as a pioneer of pandemic performance, but in a way, one of her stage works has become a model of how to do theater safely outdoors. Fannie Lou Hamer: Speak On It, a show about the titular activist and the importance of voting, was performed in public parks in the months leading up to the 2020 presidential election, presented by the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. That same staging moved to Washington, DC, under the auspices of Arena Stage, and a different mounting was presented by Premiere Stages at Kean University in New Jersey.

Hamer’s story of activism was perfect for the time, and, like another famous figure from history West is writing about, rock-and-roll pioneer Sister Rosetta Tharpe, teaches us a lot about the world we live in today. Here, West discusses the impact of these two unique women and the productions she’s creating to center their stories.

Your piece Fannie Lou Hamer: Speak On It is one of the few actual in-person theater productions that took place during the pandemic. Tell me about it.
I was working a piece about the ’60s for the Fifth Avenue Theatre, and I came across the story of Fannie Lou Hamer and I remember thinking it would make a wonderful one-woman show. That other project did not come to fruition, so I decided to do Fannie Lou Hamer. I’m always interested in stories that have to do with resilience and courage and perseverance, and her story had all of that and more. I happened to meet Tanya Palmer from the Goodman at a summit on parity and women in theater, and I went up to her and I was like, “Listen, I have this show that I think will be really great in Chicago.” She went back and they decided to commission it, and then I went to Seattle Rep, which is my home theater, and they co-commissioned it.