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Remembering John O’Neal and the Free Southern Theater – AAIHS

Remembering John O’Neal and the Free Southern Theater – AAIHS
“Dwelling Room Scene” (The Show-Off Theatre Stills Collection, Schomburg Middle for Analysis in Black Tradition).

John O’Neal, the co-founder of the Free Southern Theater (FST)–one of many cultural arms of the Scholar Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)–has died at the age of 78. Less well-known than the other SNCC institutions, such as the Freedom Singers and the Freedom Faculties, the FST played a central part in the 1964 Freedom Summer time organizing marketing campaign. From this experience, O’Neal spent a lifetime building cultural establishments, experimenting with using theater within the service of social change, and leading the best way in fusing art and activism.

As O’Neal started his work in arts and the civil rights movement he realized “there was little coherency in the best way individuals take into consideration artwork. It was just incoherent.” Making a living “was the one consistency I might see,” he reflected. O’Neal sought one other method:

“There are those who view artwork as…all about individuals…the prerogative to precise their feelings and views…There are others who see art as part of the method of the person within the context of group and the group coming to consciousness of itself. In the first case, the artist is seen as a logo of the antagonistic relationship between the individual and society. Within the second case, the artist symbolizes the person inside the context of a dynamic relationship with a group…Clearly the latter view is the one that I determine with…That provides foundation to the notion that the artist is a car for a drive higher than him—or herself…it consists of the whole spirit life that we participate in, in addition to the entire political, social and financial life.”

This was the guideline for John O’Neal’s life. As he advised his father as he embarked on founding the FST, “I don’t intend to work for a dwelling. I intend to reside for my work.” He famous, “I’ve been struggling to seek out the best way art contributes to the best way individuals stay and remedy problems ever since.”

Throughout his time as a subject secretary for the Scholar Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, John O’Neal labored with Doris Derby on an adult literacy program in Mississippi. O’Neal recalled a fateful night time in October 1963 when the thought for the Free Southern Theater was born. While sitting round smoking cigarettes until the room turned blue, O’Neal and Derby have been joined by O’Neal’s housemate Gilbert Moses, then a younger journalist for the Jackson Free Press.

The discussion turned from the wrestle for civil rights to the arts. It turned out that each one three have been followers of the theater. Derby, a painter and dancer, was married to an actor who grew up in Cleveland and frequented the same theater Gilbert Moses grew up attending. O’Neal was an aspiring playwright. They needed to determine how one can use theater and the arts to assist of their struggle for civil rights. O’Neal recalled speaking for hours before Derby lastly stated, “properly if theater means anything anyplace, it ought to definitely mean something here. Why don’t we start a theater.” For over fifteen years, the FST would convey reside efficiency to rural areas and small towns throughout the South, whereas working to unfold the civil rights message and organizing with it.

After his SNCC task ended, O’Neal wrote, “I noticed that this was not a problem of the South, although it had specific vulnerability there, however of the whole system. This can be a lifetime of labor.” He was in search of “a coherent answer to the issue of being an artist and a part of the motion for social change.” The FST was his answer.

The FST organized its first tour as part of 1964 Freedom Summer time. Historian Joe Road argues, “Of the cultural events and packages that summer time, the FST tour was simply probably the most vital and successful.” The group thought-about performing performs by Lorraine Hansberry, Langston Hughes, and Ossie Davis, earlier than deciding on a play by Martin Duberman, “In White America.” The play, made up of brief vignettes in American historical past, was easily adaptable to a touring theater with little to no set and a sizable company of actors. The play addressed both white and Black historical past, an essential element for an integrated theater.

During their sixteen-town tour, civil rights activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Mickey Schwerner have been murdered. The actors took it upon themselves to add this chapter of U.S. historical past to the manufacturing, updating the story of racism in America because it unfolded. Additionally they added the singing of freedom songs to make the performances more interactive.

While the theater found large help from civil rights legends and celebrities together with Langston Hughes, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, and lots of more, additionally they found help from those on the frontlines of the wrestle. Fannie Lou Hamer was within the audience for the Ruleville, Mississippi efficiency of Waiting for Godot which the FST performed in white face. Hamer spoke during intermission stating, “that everyone ought to pay strict consideration to the play because it’s as a result of ready that the Negro is as far behind as he’s.” Drawing which means out of performs for the work of civil rights and starting discussions about strategies and organizing, the affect of these performances was invaluable. The members of the theater joked, however solely partially, that they have been enjoying “probably the most thrilling theatrical circuit in America.”

The theater made regular journeys to New York Metropolis to boost funds and publicity for their work in the South. Following the success of the 1964 tour, the group carried out Waiting for Godot on the New Faculty for Social Research. Instantly following the present, two FBI brokers arrested O’Neal as an “unproven” conscientious objector. He was sentenced to serve two years in Chicago as janitor in a hospital before interesting and having his task moved to the Bronx.

O’Neal was pressured to go away the theater simply because it was making a reputation for itself. The warfare in Vietnam was heating up, and other people across the South have been organizing in ever higher numbers for civil rights; nevertheless, O’Neal spent the subsequent two years outdoors of the South. Denise Nichols noticed the sentence as an try and silence the work of O’Neal and the theater during “the Yr of Revolt” as they referred to as the season that included Duberman’s play alongside Brecht’s The Rifles of Senora Carrar.

O’Neal returned to the theater in 1969 after his group service was up. The group, now based mostly within the Want neighborhood of New Orleans, had begun to forge a a lot closer relationship with the area people whereas persevering with to tour the rural South with plays written by Black playwrights including Ossie Davis and James Baldwin. And while the theater embraced Black Power, O’Neal continued to argue for an integrated theater that was run by Black members and was in service to Black freedom. He claimed that the FST could possibly be each integrated and for Black Power.

Because the Black Power period continued to develop, the final white member of the theater departed, they usually began performances highlighting the independence fights within the Caribbean and Africa and furthering the Black mental tradition with plays by Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, and Ed Bullins.

By 1980, out of the unique group, solely O’Neal remained within the FST. In a dramatic style, hosting a jazz funeral for the Free Southern, O’Neal reworked the theater into Junebug Productions. The character of Junebug Jabbo Jones was partially a SNCC invention. In response to Jan Cohen-Cruz, the character served “as a representation of the knowledge of widespread individuals in the lengthy tradition of cultural characters…keepers of goals, wily underdogs with robust survival mechanisms.” Characters similar to Jones, like O’Neal himself, “move on a wealthy cultural legacy” of tales grounded in Black oral tradition.

Over the subsequent three many years, O’Neal integrated Junebug Productions into the work of local activists throughout the South. In New Orleans he worked with the Environmental Justice Venture which brought collectively environmental and humanities groups to spotlight environmental racism and the excessive rates of cancer in poor neighborhoods of shade.

Throughout this time O’Neal developed the thought of “Talking Circles” the place individuals would share stories and use this as the idea to build widespread ground and the motion for Black freedom. He needed to foster dialogue between individuals with totally different perspectives. He saw this as an advance over argument and as a space to generate content material for performances that may stimulate further movement constructing locally. While his type of organizing, writing, and performing had advanced, the central venture remained the identical: using artwork as a way to additional the wrestle for freedom and justice.

The unique mission statement for the Free Southern Theater theorized that a fashion of theater might develop in the South “that’s as unique to the Negro individuals as the origin of blues and jazz.” Partially they argued that “By means of theater, we expect to open a brand new space of protest. One that allows the event of playwrights and actors, one that allows the growth and self-knowledge of a negro viewers, one which dietary supplements the present wrestle for freedom.” They believed that “By themselves, protest and political motion can’t sufficiently alter the present state of affairs.” Their purpose was to “add a cultural and schooling dimension” to the motion.

Denise Nichols explained the work that she, O’Neal, and the members of the Free Southern undertook: “The political question—the relationship between politics and artwork; between what we and our peers in the ‘movement’ have been doing—consumed the most important part of the philosophical wrestle.” The shortage of performs written by Black individuals and about Black experiences at the time, she attributed to the shortage of theaters “the place black writers can develop.” Nichols continued, “The theaters that do exist will stay extra potential than actual till the shape itself is seen in the black group as a significant and useful car for the expression and clarification of experience.” John O’Neal spent a lifetime writing performs and building a theater and a motion that changed that reality.

Fusing the wrestle for Black Freedom with the work of creating a compelling and delightful theater have been the lifelong labors of John O’Neal. The world is a richer place for his many years of labor in furthering each.

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