Karen Stefano stood out during auditions for "Scenes and Songs from Fannie Lou: On Broadway." For her callback, she didn't just go over the script she was given. She memorized it.
That demonstrated to producers an impressive work ethic which, along with her talent and congenial personality, landed Karen the lead role for the Black History Month special event.
"I'm so blessed to be able to play this woman, who is such an inspiration," said Karen. "She's a hero."
Karen will portray voting rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer in a one-night-only presentation of selected dialogue and music from the new original musical Fannie Lou on Feb. 24 at Broadway's August Wilson Theatre.
Fannie Lou Hamer was of the seminal leaders of the voting rights struggle in the South during the early 1960's. A Mississippi sharecropper who grew up poor and whose education ceased with grade school, she nevertheless relentlessly fought for the right to vote. Her voting and civil rights activities began when she was 44 years old and ended only with her death 15 years later.
For the upcoming production, Karen relays different aspects of Mrs. Hamer's life. In order to do that, Karen has to draw on a range of acting and singing skills. As her audition callback suggested, it is a job for which she has well prepared.
"I studied theater at Nazareth College of Rochester [New York]," recalled Karen, who received a scholarship to pursue theater studies. "After I graduated I wanted to come to New York City. So I came and started taking classes."
That was in the early 1990's. Karen's first job was as an extra on the set of Spike Lee's acclaimed film "Malcolm X." She continued to do more extra work on various projects, including the television soap operas "All My Children" and "As the World Turns."
Working on stage and screen has always been a career goal for Karen. "I've always been acting," says Karen, who laughs about her first "big break" as a performer.
"It was in first grade," she said about a Christmas recreation that her class was going to present. "Another girl wanted to play the part of Mary. I said, 'I can rock Baby Jesus better than her.'" A determined Karen got the role.
"That's all I did, rock Baby Jesus. So I remember that being my first feature part."
But with that first role also came Karen's first critic -- her sister, Audrey, who was harsh with her review after Karen had the misfortune of dropping the doll she was holding.
"She said, 'You dropped Baby Jesus!'" Karen recalled. But the budding actress was undaunted. "I didn't take it to heart because I knew I did a fabulous job."
Karen makes her home in Bloomfield, NJ. A native of Jamaica, she moved to the United States with her family at age 16.
"My parents wanted to come for a better life, so we moved to Rochester," said Karen, the middle of nine children. "I thought it was the coldest place on earth. My father had family there, so it was just easier for him to find work and live there."
Family has always been important to Karen. She has two children, a boy and a girl. She was working on an "All My Children" shoot when there was a minor emergency involving her daughter, who was in kindergarten at the time. A comment her daughter made then led Karen to change her direction -- at least temporarily.
"She said, 'You're never home,'" remembered Karen. Although Karen was able to put the comment into perspective as the narrow observation of a child, it still made an impact. Karen decided to stop acting for awhile.
Another comment, this time from her son, initiated her return.
"About four years ago he looked at me and said, 'Mom, you can go back. We're pretty good now. You can go back to acting.'" He was 10 years old at the time.
Karen started sending out headshots and resumes, slowly getting back into the fold.
"Progressively I started getting work. I said, I guess I can get back into acting, so I did."
Karen said she enjoys the liberating aspects of performing.
"I get to be a freer me" she said. "There's no limit, there's no judgment. To do different characters and live in a world I would not normally live in, I think that's awesome."
She said she's enthused about telling the story of Fannie Lou Hamer on the stage. She's listening to audio tapes of Mrs. Hamer to study her speaking tones and inflections.
"I cannot wait," Karen said. "As long as I know that someone will get this message and walk away with it, that's awesome. And I know it's going to take off. I'm so excited."
To get your tickets for "Scenes and Songs from Fannie Lou: On Broadway," visit www.fannieloumusical.com.