Performing in a musical about voting rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer is more than just acting for Yewande Odetoyinbo.
“I feel like a lot of people don’t know the story of Fannie Lou Hamer,” said Yewande. “She was such an inspiration and important part of not just black history, but American history.”
Yewande will help tell the story about Mrs. Hamer in “Scenes and Songs from Fannie Lou: On Broadway,” a special, one-night-only Black History Month presentation taking place at Broadway’s August Wilson Theatre on Feb. 24.
“I learned about her in school, but when I ask a lot of people they say, ‘Who’s that?’” notes Yewande. “People need to know who she is.”
Mrs. Hamer was one of the beacons of the voting rights movement. She grew up in rural Mississippi, had little education and lived the life of a poor sharecropper. Her attempts to register to vote and to help other African Americans exercise their voting rights were met with violent resistance. At one point, she was jailed and severely beaten because of her voting rights efforts.
The February production features selected music and dialogue from Fannie Lou, a new musical inspired by Mrs. Hamer’s voting rights efforts that tells the story of the voting rights struggle from a variety of perspectives.
Yewande helps relay that story as one of the ensemble players. She’ll travel to New York City, for rehearsals and the performance, from her home in the Washington, D.C., suburb area of Silver Spring, MD.
A native of Detroit, Yewande began singing in church at age 4. She went on to join youth theater groups.
“As far back as I can remember I’ve loved performing,” she said. While Yewande’s journalist mom and Nigerian-born engineer dad envisioned a career for their daughter in the sciences, medicine or perhaps law, Yewande had other plans.
They were set in motion by the King of Pop.
There’s that moment for every performing artist, the one they can point to and say, yes, that was what reeled me in and hooked me to pursue a life on the stage. For Yewande, it was seeing Michael Jackson for the very first time.
“I saw Michael Jackson perform on TV, and it was, ‘Oh my gosh, I want to do that,’” says Yewande about the event that changed her life. She started buying Jackson’s albums and following his career. When pressed about what exactly it was that attracted her, Yewande says she can’t pinpoint a single characteristic.
“I like everything. He has the whole package,” says Yewande, adding, “He’s my favorite artist of all time.”
While Yewande was elated at the prospect of following her idol into a career as a performer, her parents were not as jubilant. Only after seeing Yewande perform in a production of Arsenic and Old Lace did her mom realize her daughter’s talent, and give her blessing for Yewande to pursue her chosen career.
It took her dad a little longer. When it came time for Yewande to apply to colleges, he wasn’t pleased with her performing-arts career choice.
“He said, ‘We are not paying this money for you to frolic about the stage,’” recalled Yewande.
That reaction became a moot point, however, after Yewande received a full-tuition scholarship to attend Howard University.
“So my dad didn’t have to pay,” she notes. With time, she adds, her dad has become used to the idea that he is the father of an actress. “He’s accepting of it now.”
Yewande has performed on cruise ships and in regional productions ranging from Rent toCarmen Jones. She relishes being on stage.
“I think it’s becoming someone else,” she said about the attraction. “You’re telling a story that without you may not have been told.”
Yewande is especially attracted to the medium of theater.
“People say, ‘Why didn’t you go into film?’ But I love the [live] audience. If something is funny, there are laughs. If something is sad, there are tears. It’s that instant gratification.”Audience members of “Scenes and Songs from Fannie Lou: On Broadway” will be instantly gratified with Yewande’s performance when they see her at the August Wilson Theatre on Feb. 24, helping to tell the story of Fannie Lou Hamer. For more information and to purchase a ticket, visit www.fannieloumusical.com.