Remembering John O’Neal and the Free Southern Theater

“Living Room Scene” (The Show-Off Theatre Stills Collection, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture).

John O’Neal, the co-founder of the Free Southern Theater (FST)–one of the cultural arms of the Student 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 Schools, the FST played a central part in the 1964 Freedom Summer organizing campaign. From this experience, O’Neal spent a lifetime building cultural institutions, experimenting with the use of theater in the service of social change, and leading the way in fusing art and activism.

As O’Neal began his work in arts and the civil rights movement he realized “there was little coherency in the way people think about art. It was just incoherent.” Making money “was the only consistency I could see,” he reflected. O’Neal sought another way:

“There are those who view art as…all about individuals…the prerogative to express their feelings and views…There are others who see art as part of the process of the individual in the context of community and the community coming to consciousness of itself. In the first case, the artist is seen as a symbol of the antagonistic relationship between the individual and society. In the second case, the artist symbolizes the individual within the context of a dynamic relationship with a community…Obviously the latter view is the one that I identify with…That gives basis to the notion that the artist is a vehicle for a force greater than him—or herself…it includes the whole spirit life that we participate in, as well as the whole political, social and economic life.”

This was the guiding principle for John O’Neal’s life. As he told his father as he embarked on founding the FST, “I don’t intend to work for a living. I intend to live for my work.” He noted, “I’ve been struggling to find the way art contributes to the way people live and solve problems ever since.”

During his time as a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, John O’Neal worked with Doris Derby on an adult literacy program in Mississippi. O’Neal recalled a fateful night in October 1963 when the idea for the Free Southern Theater was born. While sitting around smoking cigarettes until the room turned blue, O’Neal and Derby were joined by O’Neal’s housemate Gilbert Moses, then a young journalist for the Jackson Free Press.

The discussion turned from the struggle for civil rights to the arts. It turned out that all three were fans 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 wanted to figure out how to use theater and the arts to aid in their fight for civil rights. O’Neal recalled talking for hours before Derby finally said, “well if theater means anything anywhere, it should certainly mean something here. Why don’t we start a theater.” For over fifteen years, the FST would bring live performance to rural areas and small towns across the South, while working to spread the civil rights message and organizing with it.

After his SNCC assignment ended, O’Neal wrote, “I realized that this was not a problem of the South, though it had particular vulnerability there, but of the whole system. This is a lifetime of work.” He was looking for “a coherent solution to the problem of being an artist and part of the movement for social change.”1 The FST was his answer.

The FST organized its first tour as part of 1964 Freedom Summer. Historian Joe Street argues, “Of the cultural events and programs that summer, the FST tour was easily the most significant and successful.” The group considered performing plays by Lorraine Hansberry, Langston Hughes, and Ossie Davis, before settling on a play by Martin Duberman, “In White America.” The play, made up of short vignettes in American history, was easily adaptable to a traveling theater with little to no set and a sizable company of actors. The play addressed both white and Black history, an important component for an integrated theater.

During their sixteen-town tour, civil rights activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Mickey Schwerner were murdered. The actors took it upon themselves to add this chapter of U.S. history to the production, updating the story of racism in America as it unfolded. They also added the singing of freedom songs to make the performances more interactive.

While the theater found wide support from civil rights legends and celebrities including Langston Hughes, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, and many more, they also found support from those on the frontlines of the struggle. Fannie Lou Hamer was in the audience for the Ruleville, Mississippi performance of Waiting for Godot which the FST performed in white face. Hamer spoke during intermission stating, “that everyone should pay strict attention to the play because it’s due to waiting that the Negro is as far behind as he is.” Drawing meaning out of plays for the work of civil rights and starting discussions about strategies and organizing, the influence of these performances was invaluable. The members of the theater joked, but only in part, that they were playing “the most exciting theatrical circuit in America.”2

The theater made regular trips to New York City to raise funds and publicity for their work in the South. Following the success of the 1964 tour, the group performed Waiting for Godot at the New School for Social Research. Immediately following the show, two FBI agents arrested O’Neal as an “unproven” conscientious objector. He was sentenced to serve two years in Chicago as janitor in a hospital before appealing and having his assignment moved to the Bronx.

O’Neal was forced to leave the theater just as it was making a name for itself. The war in Vietnam was heating up, and people across the South were organizing in ever greater numbers for civil rights; however, O’Neal spent the next two years outside of the South. Denise Nichols saw the sentence as an attempt to silence the work of O’Neal and the theater during “the Year of Revolt” as they called 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 community service was up. The group, now based in the Desire neighborhood of New Orleans, had begun to forge a much closer relationship with the local community while continuing 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 be both integrated and for Black Power.

As the Black Power era continued to develop, the last white member of the theater departed, and they began performances highlighting the independence fights in the Caribbean and Africa and furthering the Black intellectual tradition with plays by Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, and Ed Bullins.

By 1980, out of the original group, only O’Neal remained in the FST. In a dramatic fashion, hosting a jazz funeral for the Free Southern, O’Neal transformed the theater into Junebug Productions. The character of Junebug Jabbo Jones was in part a SNCC invention. According to Jan Cohen-Cruz, the character served “as a representation of the wisdom of common people in the long tradition of cultural characters…keepers of dreams, wily underdogs with strong survival mechanisms.” Characters such as Jones, like O’Neal himself, “pass on a rich cultural legacy” of stories grounded in Black oral tradition.

Over the next three decades, O’Neal integrated Junebug Productions into the work of local activists across the South. In New Orleans he worked with the Environmental Justice Project which brought together environmental and arts groups to highlight environmental racism and the high rates of cancer in poor neighborhoods of color.

During this time O’Neal developed the idea of “Talking Circles” where people would share stories and use this as the basis to build common ground and the movement for Black freedom. He wanted to foster dialogue between people with different perspectives. He saw this as an advance over argument and as a space to generate content for performances that would stimulate further movement building in the community. While his style of organizing, writing, and performing had evolved, the central project remained the same: using art as a means to further the struggle for freedom and justice.

The original mission statement for the Free Southern Theater theorized that a style of theater could develop in the South “that is as unique to the Negro people as the origin of blues and jazz.” In part they argued that “Through theater, we think to open a new area of protest. One that permits the development of playwrights and actors, one that permits the growth and self-knowledge of a negro audience, one that supplements the present struggle for freedom.” They believed that “By themselves, protest and political action cannot sufficiently alter the present situation.” Their aim was to “add a cultural and education dimension” to the movement.3

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 art; between what we and our peers in the ‘movement’ were doing—consumed the largest part of the philosophical struggle.” The lack of plays written by Black people and about Black experiences at the time, she attributed to the lack of theaters “where black writers can develop.” Nichols continued, “The theaters that do exist will remain more potential than real until the form itself is seen in the black community as a meaningful and useful vehicle for the expression and clarification of experience.”4 John O’Neal spent a lifetime writing plays and building a theater and a movement that changed that reality.

Fusing the struggle for Black Freedom with the work of creating a compelling and beautiful theater were the lifelong labors of John O’Neal. The world is a richer place for his decades of work in furthering both.

  1. Jan Cohen-Cruz, Local Acts: Community Based Performance in the United States (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 289.
  2.  Thomas Dent, Richard Schechnerand Gilbert Moses, eds., The Free Southern Theater by the Free Southern Theater: A Documentary of the South’s radical black theater, with journals, letters, poetry, essays and a play written by those who built it(New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1969), 54.
  3. Dent et al., 4.
  4.  Dent et al., 174-177.
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Erik Wallenberg

Erik Wallenberg is a PhD candidate in the History Program at CUNY Graduate Center. He has taught courses in history and environmental studies at the University of Vermont and currently teaches global history and American environmental history at Brooklyn College. He is a Presidential Research Fellow working with Conversations in Black Freedom Studies at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. His research is on radical theatre and environmental movements, politics, and ideas.