By Thomas Connors
E. Faye Butler got the acting bug in Junior High, but she wasn’t your usual theater geek. In fact, if she hadn’t been nudged, she might never have gone on to earn multiple Jeff Awards entertaining theatergoers in shows like Chicago, The Wiz and Caroline, or Change. “A teacher said to me, ‘You run your mouth all the time, so this is what I’m going to do. I will give you an A if you play the role of the deaf mute in the school play,’” Butler says. “That’s when I was bit by the proverbial bug.” A regular presence on the Goodman stage, where she has appeared in such shows as Pullman Porter Blues and Crowns, Butler returns to the Owen Theatre in Cheryl L. West’s Fannie (The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer), a searing celebration of the life of 1960s civil rights activist.
Born in Chicago, Butler spent her teen years in Rockford—a town which has produced more than its share of theatrical luminaries, including directors J.R. Sullivan and Joe Mantello. She got her first big break in 1986 when she went from understudy to—as the Chicago Sun-Times opined—a star, in a production of A . . . My Name Is Alice at the Ivanhoe Theater. “I was understudy to two women in the show and on the night of the last preview, one of the actresses broke her ankle on stage in the first act,” she says. “At the intermission, the stage manager came to me and said, ‘You’re on’. And I said, ‘On what?’”
Butler hasn’t had to be quite as quick on her feet since that fateful night, but as far as she’s concerned, her career has been defined by a series of self-imposed challenges. “I go after roles that people would not typically see me in,” she says. “So, I did Gypsy, I did Hello Dolly…I always push myself to do something new and frightening, like the one-woman show Dinah Was, where you’re out there for two and a half hours. If it’s not challenging, I really don’t want to do it. That’s why I don’t often repeat a role. I’ve done the national tour of Ain’t Misbehaving. Don’t have to do that again. Let me move on to something else.”
While Butler has taken on a range of roles, music is central to her identity as a performer. She grew up attending the symphony and chamber concerts with her parents (along with ballet and art exhibitions), but it wasn’t until a colleague told her that singing might bring more work her way that she took a shot at it. “Singing was never part of anything I envisioned. I never studied singing,” Butler explains. “I’m a classically trained actor from Illinois State University where I got my BFA, then I went to the Goodman School of Drama, where I was in the last class. The only reason I got into music in a professional way was because as an actor, I got hungry.”
In portraying Fannie Lou Hamer—a sharecropper’s daughter who became a brave and relentless fighter for voting rights, Butler has taken on one of her greatest professional challenges. While fierce in her determination, Ms. Hamer—who was brutally attacked verbally and physically—did not allow the hate of others to engender the same in herself. Inhabiting such a woman, Butler admits, is not easy. “She was such a giving person and I get angry sometimes, knowing the things that happened to her, but I can’t get angry, because she did not lead with anger. I have to embody the person that she actually was. I have to speak things that I may not necessarily agree with, but not everyone has heard this story and you have to be accurate in what you do. That’s what makes people sit there and listen to you, listen to her.”
An abridged iteration of Fannie (The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer) was presented by the Goodman in Chicago city parks in the fall of 2020. Since then, the show—a co-production with Seattle Rep—has been performed at Arena Stage in Washington D.C., streamed in Seattle, and mounted at Asolo Rep in Sarasota and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Along the way, Butler has had the opportunity to meet people who knew Fannie. “Fannie died at 59 and the people she brought into the movement are now in their 70s and 80s,” notes Butler. “Charles McLaurin, who took her around the country when he was 18, told me that while he was frightened back then, she never was. Another person told me how Ms. Hamer had made her a birthday cake and given her a blue coat. People like that are coming to the show and saying, ‘Thank you.’”
Thomas Connors is a Chicago-based freelance writer and the Chicago Editor of Playbill.