A Very Earnest Fannie

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival rebounds from the pandemic with a rushed and borrowed show — and no Shakespeare

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival has had a very rough couple of years. Already hurting from the late summer wildfires whose billowing smoke shut down performances in its outdoor theater in 2019, OSF lost almost its entire 2020 season to the pandemic. Long a jewel in Oregon’s cultural crown, the festival, with a $40 million annual budget, ended up laying off more than 80 percent of its staff and closing all three of its theaters for more than a year.

Now one theater has re-opened, following a stumble. After announcing in February a stripped-down 2021 summer and fall season of three plays – the full season normally features 11 shows – plus a holiday special, OSF abruptly backtracked in May and canceled the three shows.

The entire offering for 2021, besides the holiday special — It’s Christmas, Carol!, written by three festival actors, Mark Bedard, Brent Hinkley, and John Tufts, opens Nov. 23 — is now a single, short, one-woman show, imported from Chicago, that has nothing to do with Shakespeare. Though the festival has long mixed other work with Shakespeare’s plays, I can’t recall a season with no Shakespeare at all.

Fannie: The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer kicked off with previews July 1 and 2 and an official opening July 3 to a socially distanced crowd that numbered not much more than 100 in the 1,200-seat Allen Elizabethan Theatre.

Chicago playwright Cheryl L. West’s new show, which runs at OSF through Oct. 9, was commissioned by Seattle Repertory Theatre and Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, where it will have an official world premiere in October after a rolling premiere at various theaters around the country, including OSF. Directed here by the Goodman’s Henry Godinez, the 80-minute play tells the story of real-life 1960s civil rights worker Fannie Lou Hamer in a mixture of words and music, with songs such as “We Shall Not Be Moved” and “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize,” sung by Fannie and played by an onstage trio.

First the good news: Chicago singer E. Faye Butler, who has already performed the role in two of those rolling premiere productions, is perfectly cast as Fannie, a down to earth Black woman who begins fighting back against racism. (OSF’s Greta Oglesby takes over the role on Sept. 1 for the rest of the run.) Butler has a commanding stage presence, a voice straight from Motown and the taut professionalism it takes to give it her all, even for a tiny audience uncomfortably scattered around a big empty hall on a hot summer evening when I see the second preview performance on July 2.

The rest of the news isn’t as good. Fannie turns out to be hardly a play at all. Described as a “call to action,” the show is an earnest Ted Talk on the tough battles fought by the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. There’s no story arc, no inner conflict, not a shred of humor and nothing like a night of despair before the final victory. In fact, the play ends abruptly with Hamer’s death at age 59 from cancer, leaving little sense of resolution, victorious or not.

Worse, though, is that this is clearly a rush job on a budget. OSF apparently borrowed the show from the Goodman and patched it together here in a hurry. Butler performs in front of the traditional Old Globe facade with no set to speak of, just some costume changes and a couple political signs to provide context. The lighting is unvaryingly straightforward, as is the blocking. Keeping expenses down comes with hard times, but this is not simply a question of money. Fannie isn’t the kind of elegant, graceful and intelligent production I’ve come to expect at OSF.

It breaks my heart to say it, but this one’s not worth driving down to Ashland to see. Yes, the festival needs your support. Show it, if you can, by sending donations via OSFAshland.org, and hope that both Shakespeare and the engaging contemporary plays the festival is widely known for will return to Ashland for a new season in 2022. ν

Fannie: The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer runs through Oct. 9 in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s outdoor Allen Elizabethan Theatre. General admission tickets are $35 at OSFAshland.org. Social distancing, with vaccination certificates and masks, is still required as of press time, though the festival says larger crowds may soon be admitted.