Brenda Schleunes Takes Her Show on the Road
‘“I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.’”
This is perhaps the most memorable phrase spoken by civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, who, in the 1960s, decided to take a stand against the injustices done to blacks in America.
On Aug. 31, 1962 Fannie Lou Hamer risked losing her job, home and even her life to take a bus with 17 other blacks to the Indianola courthouse in her Mississippi hometown to register to vote. On that day while returning they were stopped by police and the was driver charged with driving a bus the wrong color. Hamer and several of her colleagues were taken to jail. Hamer was ordered to lie face down on a bed where she was beaten with a blackjack, at the orders of police officers, by two other blacks. The first beat her until he was exhausted and could no longer continue. Then the second beat her while the first sat on her legs to keep them from moving. When the beatings ceased she couldn’t stand up; her body was hard and her fingers stiffened. The beatings caused a blood clot in her eye and injury to one of her kidneys. Upon returning to the plantation where she worked as a sharecropper she lost her job and home because she insisted on having the right to vote.
But Hamer’s story doesn’t end there. The hardships she endured opened the doors for other blacks. In 1964 she helped create the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, challenging Mississippi’s all-white Democratic party of the time. Lyndon B. Johnson would later sign the Voting Rights Act after being elected president.
Cassandra L. Williams plays a convincing Hamer in the Touring Theatre Ensemble of North Carolina’s production of The Life and Times of Fannie Lou Hamer, which showed last week at the High Point Theatre and the Malachi House in Greensboro. Wearing a simple dress patterned with flowers, a beaded necklace and carrying a tan purse, Williams switches from past to present tense, becoming Hamer in the moment of action and then narrating the events of her past to the audience. Many of the lines Williams uses are actual quotes documented from court records and other accounts of things Fannie Lou is remembered for saying.
The theater’s founder and producing artist, Brenda Schleunes, wrote the play, using intense research to depict Hamer with historical accuracy. Schleunes’ works are all educational and she strives to be correct in all of her representations.
‘“They aren’t coming for entertainment, but for education,’” says Schleunes of her audiences.
The theater has no home base, other than the fact that Schleunes lives in the town of Greensboro. The touring theater has traveled to more than half of North Carolina’s 100 counties and to several states including New York, Nebraska and Vermont, performing in theatres, schools and churches.
The reason the theater travels, says Schleunes, is to reach people who wouldn’t otherwise come to a permanent theater.
‘“If you take it to their church or theater you reach them in a different way,’” she says.
At the age of 40, after moving to Greensboro for her husband’s job at UNCG, Schleunes was not sure what to do. They had been living in Chicago where she worked in theater; a job not easily attained just anywhere. So she decided to go to UNC to earn her master’s degree in performance studies. Schleunes developed a passion for narrative theater, using voice and movement on stage with minimal props, allowing the audience to fill in the rest with their own imagination, and did her thesis on the subject. Then in 1981, while involved in the local PTA, she did a narrative show for the children at the school. Everyone loved it and they asked for more. In just two years she was beginning to pay her actors and in three years she incorporated her theater into a non-profit organization.
Now all her actors are paid and she keeps a busy schedule.
Actor Stephen Gee portrays multiple characters in the play. Dressed in a brown suit and brown striped tie he takes on the characters of a plantation owner, a hardened police officer and a caring civil rights worker. His biggest challenge, he says, is going from a police officer to a civil rights worker in just 35 seconds. With the changing of a pair of sunglasses to a pair of clear reading glasses his demeanor and personality changes just as quickly.
Taneka Bennett and Juan Fernandez also play multiple characters. Bennett, an African American, plays both a black woman abused by the police and a frail old white woman who meets Hamer at the Laundromat. Fernandez plays Hamer’s husband and an old black farmer whose house was burned, among others.
This talented cast, who also sing African spirituals and freedom songs throughout the play, has the audience laughing one minute and feeling pity the next. They bring history to life for those who have only read about it.
For those who have lived some of the history they are a reminder of where we have come. Faye Ashe remembered her experiences after watching the play at the High Point Theatre.
‘“When I would ride on the back of the bus it just made me sick,’” she said. Even after the law changed allowing blacks to ride where they wish she still faced prejudices. She recalls sitting near the front of the bus when two white men boarded. They refused to sit near a ‘“black bitch,’” she said.
‘“We’ll, I wasn’t no black bitch so I didn’t move,’” she said. Finally, the men moved nearer the back themselves.
Schleunes says through her educational theater she has the goal of giving dignity to all people.
As the play ends a silence falls over the audience. Her mission has been accomplished.