Artist: Sean Gerard Clark
In the late summer of 1963, propelled through treacherous rural Alabama by spirituals from his previous post in the civil rights battlefields of south Georgia, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) field secretary and playwright John O’Neal arrived at the campus of Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi.
There, O’Neal joined with fellow field secretary Doris Derby and student Gilbert Moses, already hard at work on the curriculum for the Freedom Schools, to found a theater that would serve as a political education and empowerment tool for Southern organizers.
Political conditions including better access to funding and collaboration with other projects motivated the Free Southern Theater’s move to New Orleans in 1965. From this base the company toured across the rural South, inspiring members of its racially integrated cast to become activists as well as artists.
The FST drew support from the Black communities where it performed in churches, classrooms and barns, and from Black artists and writers around the country. Its first donation – a check for $5 – came from Langston Hughes himself.
Under the direction of writers including O’Neal, Tom Dent and Kalamu ya Salaam, the FST’s works were inspired by the wit and wisdom of ‘common folk’.
One memorable character, first performed in the Tougaloo days, is storyteller and narrator Junebug Jabbo Jones. In 1980, a debut performance of O’Neal’s Junebug solo piece, ‘Don’t Start Me to Talking, Or I’ll Tell Everything I Know,’ symbolically concluded the Free Southern Theater and inaugurated its successor, Junebug Productions.
O’Neal served as Junebug’s artistic director through his retirement in 2011. Today the organization carries on the FST’s mission, supporting activism through creative means including the Story Circle process, the Color Lines project, and drama, dance and poetry performances.