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Hamlet tells story of civil rights activist in ‘Black River’ theater production

August 24, 2020

NIU Communications Professor Janice Hamlet can add musical theater to her list of experiences.

Janice Hamlet, associate professor in the Department of Communication and senior faculty mentor in the Office of the Provost.

Hamlet, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Communication and senior faculty mentor in the Office of the Provost, spent part of her summer bringing to life the story of civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer.

Hamlet was chosen as the featured speaker for two virtual performances of a new musical project featuring Composer Mary D. Watkin’s opera “Dark River.”

The opera tells the story of Hamer, a daughter of sharecroppers who became a leader in the Civil Rights movement during the turbulent 1960s. Hamlet already had researched Hamer, having written a scholarly journal article about her. Originally published in 1996, that article caught the attention of those behind the “Black River” project.

“Hamer’s story is an incredible story that Mary Watkins felt compelled to put to into music,” Hamlet said. “It was my first involvement in being part of a project like this. I applaud the composer for taking someone’s story and turning it into an opera the way she did. I thought it was an amazing project.”

Tianhui Ng, a music professor and conductor at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, served as music director and coordinated the summer project.

Hamlet’s words were combined with choral performances by the West Village Chorale and Pioneer Valley Symphony on July 28 in Greenfield, Massachusetts, and as part of a “Summer Sings” series by West Village Chorale on Aug. 3 in New York. 

Hamer’s relative obscurity originally drew Hamlet to her. She remembered well Hamer’s powerful televised speech during the 1964 Democratic National Convention, which focused national attention on the brutal attacks on African Americans who tried to vote in Mississippi.

Hamer was 45 years old when civil rights workers came to her Mississippi town in 1962 to encourage African Americans to register to vote. Although she was aware that any African Americans who attempted to register would be doing so at a tremendous risk to themselves and their families, she was among the first to volunteer.

She became a leader in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, and she endured death threats, beatings, and imprisonment in order to obtain voting rights for her people.

Hamer was arrested at one point, put in jail and heavily beaten, all before her testimony at the Democratic National Convention.

“Even though she was uneducated, she was a prolific public speaker mainly because of her passion and her willingness to be very honest about what was going on,” Hamlet said. 

In between video materials and performances of Hamer’s arias, Hamlet spoke of her life—all via Zoom, another new experience for Hamlet.

“I had to be brought up to speed on how to use it and its capabilities. It was interesting,” she said. “I felt proud of myself at the end for doing that.”

She also was asked to record her speech for promotion to be part of future presentations and performances.

The entire experience, featuring viewers, participants and performers from throughout the country, moved her.

“It was just incredible for all these people all over the United States to come together in this virtual concert,” she said.