Although the Free Southern Theater operated in New Orleans from 1965 to 1980 and was a national leader in the Black Arts Movement, pioneering new aesthetic forms that influenced future generations of poets and performing artists, it is rarely mentioned in history lessons and its legacy is not common knowledge in New Orleans. Stephanie McKee and Kiyoko McCrae, co-directors of Junebug Productions, seek to change this gap in cultural knowledge. Later this month, Junebug, an institutional descendant of the FST, is hosting
Talkin’ Revolution, four days of events to commemorate the 1963 launch of the FST and illuminate its rich history and legacy.
In its early days, the Free Southern Theater struggled to define itself and find a place within communities that did not express any particular desire to engage with traditional theater. “We’re grafting an idea onto a community. The graft will heal and slowly the FST will become one with the community,” said Gilbert Moses, an FST founder, in a 1965 interview. Founded in 1963 by politically- minded artists John O’Neal, Doris Derby and Moses, the FST started out as an integrated touring company that traveled throughout the South, performing in rural communities alongside the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s voter registration drives. The material they performed (by avant-garde playwrights such as Samuel Beckett, Ossie Davis and Martin Duberman) was not specific to these communities and did not always speak directly to the political goals of the Movement.
The act of touring as an integrated company in the Jim Crow South was in itself subversive, challenging segregation and furthering a vision of liberation, even if the content of the work was not always particularly radical. When the FST performed Duberman’s In White America in a Mississippi town known for being the “birthplace of the White Citizens Council,” a group of 25 stone-faced white men showed up for the performance “looking like a very orderly lynch party,” according to journalist Elizabeth Sutherland of The Nation. When the play ended with a round of freedom songs, “The familiar words seemed to ring out as never before… Neither the rows of white men inside, nor the 42 badges outside, could diminish the voices of all those black men, women, youths and children.” McKee explains that the word free in the group’s name referred both to the price of admission and to “the movement building they were doing in terms of just working for equality.” O’Neal expanded on this definition in a 1965 interview: “We mean more than the fact that the theatre doesn’t charge anything. We mean we are seeking a new kind of liberation—a liberation from old forms of theatre, old techniques and ideas. A freedom to find new forms of theatrical expression and to find expression in people who have never expressed themselves in theatre before.” This vision represents a thematic tension within the early years of the FST: whether to continue performing traditional plays by established (often white) playwrights and bring “theater to the people,” or seek new aesthetic forms rooted in the lived experiences of oppressed people, creating “theater with the people.”
A new phase began for the FST in 1966 when the theater established its home base in the 9th Ward’s Desire housing project on Louisa Street. The FST had moved from Jackson to New Orleans in 1965, affiliating itself with Tulane University, an elite white institution, and making ties with the city’s black middle class. The physical move to the Desire marked a shift in vision and approach towards a more community-based aesthetic influenced by the philosophy of the Black Power movement, which emphasized black self- sufficiency and independence from white power structures. “Rather than seeking to take on a role as educators in the communities they served,” writes scholar Catherine Michna, “[the FST] had to become willing to be educated by those communities.” Through the leadership of Denise Nicholas, Tom Dent and Dent’s protégée Kalamu Ya Salaam, the FST became a landmark institution in the growing Black Arts Movement, focusing on giving voice to community knowledge through workshop-based processes that produced bold, often radical new work and provoked strong reactions.
In 1966 the FST created a poetic presentation called “The Ghetto of Desire” about deplorable conditions in the Desire housing project that aired nationally on CBS stations. Local audiences were not able to view the work, however, because the Housing Authority, deeming it likely to provoke “racial disharmony,” implored the local CBS affiliate to black-out the network during the program. The resulting controversy brought the company closer together and solidified their commitment to telling stories by and for poor black New Orleanians. Rather than touring with existing texts, the FST shifted to a workshop format, developing theatrical and literary skills amongst Desire residents and performing in churches, bars, storefronts and schools.
The FST continued to be a significant presence in New Orleans throughout the 1970s; but eventually they were not able to financially support a full company. “As we became more innovative in our attempts to communicate with black audiences, the foundations became less interested,” said Tom Dent in a 1987 interview. The last official play of the FST, performed in 1980, featured a character named Junebug Jabo Jones (played by John O’Neal), who became the namesake of Junebug Productions. O’Neal helmed Junebug for many years, touring with solo performances which were more financially viable in a tough funding environment.
Although the “death” of the FST was celebrated in 1985 with a second line funeral, the theater’s legacy is carried on both by Junebug and Students at the Center, a radical writing program that was founded by FST alum Kalamu Ya Salaam and veteran educator Jim Randels. Countless other artists and organizers in New Orleans and around the country benefit from the innovations in community-based art made by the FST.
Kiyoko McCrae, Junebug’s managing director, is inspired by the FST’s message that all art is political. “How do you judge whether a piece of art is good or valuable?” she asks, describing the philosophy of FST founder John O’Neal. “For him it’s very clear that if art is not making the world a better place, then there’s little value in it.” O’Neal himself wrote in 1968: “The theatre (all art, in fact) is political. The question is whose political interests a particular theatre or a particular production will serve.”
For Junebug, like the FST before them, the politics of theater lie not just in the content of a performance but in the choice of whose story is to be told and how. The story circle process, as developed by John O’Neal in partnership with Roadside Theater, brings people together to share their experiences on a given topic. Rather than privileging rising stars or lifting up tokenized individuals, in the story circle everyone has an equal amount of time to speak and everyone is expected to listen. McCrae, who directed Lockdown (an original play about charter schools and the school-to-prison pipeline), draws inspiration from this tradition of story sharing and admires O’Neal for his humble manner: “He really listens and I think he embodies the values of the story circle that he talks about so well… He just genuinely wants to hear people’s stories. It doesn’t matter who you are. It’s a democratic process in which everyone is equal.”
McKee expects that the anniversary celebration will bring forth many more examples of the FST’s influence: “Hopefully we’ll make some discoveries about the reach and impact [of the FST].” The weekend will gather together FST members from over the years alongside artists, activists and academics who fall within the web of influence of the FST. Expected guests include FST founders John O’Neal and Dr. Doris Derby, as well as FST members Kalamu ya Salaam, Chakula Cha Jua, Quo Vadis Gex Breaux and Frozine Thomas. McKee notes that this is probably the last time all of these elders will be gathered in one place. With Black arts organizations closing their doors left and right due to lack of funding, hearing their stories will be particularly timely and productive for those who choose to listen.
Talkin’ Revolution will take place October 17-20 at various locations. Highlights include a showcase of local performers at Cafe Istanbul on Thursday, October 17 at 7pm and a free photo exhibit at the McKenna Museum of African American Art. Registration and full schedule are available at junebugproductions.org.