UNION, NJ — Like the rest of everyday life, theater productions ground to a halt when the COVID-19 pandemic took hold of the world in March. Premiere Stages, the professional theater company in residence at Kean University, was no exception. But the company is back now, on an outdoor stage, with “Fannie Lou Hamer, Speak On It!” — an hourlong play by Cheryl L. West. Telling the story of Fannie Lou Hamer, a civil rights activist who fought for voting rights in the 1960s and 1970s, the show will be staged outside the Liberty Hall Museum on Kean’s campus from Oct. 15 through 18.
“It’s one of the most challenging shows I’ve ever produced,” Glen Ridge resident John Wooten, the producing artistic director of Premiere Stages, said in a phone interview on Oct. 3. “Everything takes five times longer than it normally would. The good thing is, in July we had six commencement ceremonies, so we got good at producing events outside.”
The audience will be seated under a tent, socially distanced and wearing masks. Temperatures will be checked at the entrance, while viewers are still in their cars. The play intentionally has no intermission. Wooten wanted to make sure there was no opportunity for audience members to leave their seats and mingle. There won’t be a playbill either; the program will be viewable online via scannable QR codes.
“I think it’s going to be very difficult to have indoor shows for a while,” Wooten said about the state of theater nowadays. “Just from all the information we have, it’s safer to be outside. I don’t think we’re going to be indoors within six months.”
Rehearsals for the show began virtually then moved to in-person. Premiere Stages is following the Actors Equity Association’s guidelines, and the theater union had to give permission for the show to go on at all. But Wooten is optimistic; he thinks the audience tent will be as full as it’s allowed to be.
Every show the company does is topical, and this one is no different. The play, which was adapted by West from her own play “Fannie,” tells the story of Hamer’s life as she fought for voting and racial equality.
“This story can’t be more relevant now,” Wooten said. Hamer “was a champion of voting rights. Racism and voter suppression are front and center right now. She wanted to get out the vote. So many people sacrificed so much for us to be able to vote. We’re not telling you how to vote, but we do want you to vote. That’s important to me.”
Tickets are $20; students can use the code “pledge” for half-priced tickets if they sign a pledge to vote in the upcoming election. Show times are Oct. 15 and Oct. 16 at 7 p.m., Oct. 17 at 3 and 6 p.m., and Oct. 18 at 3 p.m. A question-and-answer session about the show will follow the matinee performances. Tickets can be purchased at www.premierestagesatkean.com/current-shows.
“It’s tricky to try to do anything live now,” Wooten said. “But given the importance of the project, we thought it was worth it.”