EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay is taken from “Art in a Democracy: Selected Plays of Roadside Theater.” The two-volume collection of plays celebrates the work of Roadside Theater, an Appalachian community-based theater company formed in 1975 as part of Appalshop. Roadside’s work has focused on telling the stories of the Central Appalachian coalfields and of collaborating with other culturally specific theater companies. This essay is about one of Roadside’s partners, John O’Neal, who started his theater career in the rural South in support of the civil rights movement.

One bright day in 1980, John O’Neal stepped into my office at the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and told me, “A. B., I need a grant to bury the Free Southern Theater.” I laughed heartily at this obvious joke. The Free Southern Theater (FST) was foundational in the program that I ran, NEA’s Expansion Arts Program; of the arts in Black America; of the culture of the South and of New Orleans, its home. I knew the FST was having money problems, but what organizations in the ExArts world didn’t have money problems? Finding ways for them to get out of murderous debt was the central challenge of my job. “Sit down,” I said; “we’ll find a way to save it.”

He sat. “No,” he replied, “we won’t. The Free Southern Theater has been saved enough times already. I want to close it down, collect all of its documents and place them somewhere appropriate, probably Tulane, hold a conference and festival where we get together as many of the people who comprised the theater and its operations, film performances of its repertoire, talk about our memories of it, record all of that, and then hold a New Orleans funeral for the FST as we parade its corpse through the city and then bury it in the ground.”

It turned out to be one of the best grants Expansion Arts ever made. Most small or midsize arts organizations don’t prepare for their dissolution. They dissipate in administrative and programmatic excruciation until there is nothing left of them. John wasn’t having that. He thought that the Free Southern Theater deserved to die with dignity, and that the coming generations of arts activists should have easy access to its bones.

Expansion Arts

This essay isn’t about me, so I will be brief with this section. From the 1970s until the century’s end, there existed a loose but recognizable coalition of arts activists and organizations that housed them. These artists and their organizations worked in communities that I once described as culture-rich but institution-poor—that is, communities of color, unassimilated ethnic communities, rural and low-income and disabled communities, etc. Most were fairly young organizations. Many started in or after the 1960s, though some traced their origins as far back as the settlement house movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and the Works Progress Administration and other Roosevelt-era initiatives. It became abundantly clear that these artists and the organizations they led needed to come together. In those days, there were no conferences that intersected the cultural lines, no confabulations where the voices of the cultures could speak across the barricades. Open Dialogue was that assembly. The cultures met; they broke into affinity sessions wherein each group defined their issues and brought them back to the big group. Common issues were the business of the whole, and the whole supported the unique causes of particular groups. Open Dialogue continued for many decades.

[O]ur major opposition came from the “fine” arts world, which denied that there was art of any merit in Expansion Arts and saw the program’s budget as a waste of money.

The Free Southern Theater was relatively senior among these organizations. It originated in 1963, a few years before the Black Arts Movement, La Raza, the rural arts movement, the Asian American arts movement, and others. Vantile Whitfield, the first director of the Expansion Arts Program, traveled the country and found these organizations, identified their common features, organized categories of funding that accommodated those features, and propagated the program and its principles. I became director of Expansion Arts in 1978 and managed to hold it together until the middle of the Clinton administration, when the evangelical Right proclaimed the NEA heathen and sinful and raised millions of dollars waving around pictures it considered pornographic or satanic. The Right never was able to eliminate the NEA, but they did achieve annual cuts that reduced the agency to near irrelevance. These cuts led to a reorganization of the agency, including an elimination of discipline or field-defined programs, and the end of Expansion Arts.

But the capital P Politics were never the central problem for Expansion Arts. To be sure, we always had to convince each new chairman that her or his life would be much easier without hardball inquiries from the Black and Hispanic congressional caucuses. The leaders of the field were not at all shy about jacking up the new chairmen to make sure ExArts continued and to grow its budget, though I can say honestly that I never asked them to do so, as a matter of principle. And we could always show that we could make grants in congressional districts that the programs with the large institutions never could reach.

No, our major opposition came from the “fine” arts world, which denied that there was art of any merit in Expansion Arts and saw the program’s budget as a waste of money. Give the money to us, they whined, and we can serve those “culturally deprived” (a vile term) communities better with our outreach. People who would never go to the South Bronx to see a play by Pregones, or to Lowndes County, Alabama, to see a production of the Free Southern Theater, or to Whitesburg, Kentucky, to see Roadside at work had no compunction about screaming “inferior” at us in all their exalted ignorance.

Neutralizing these voices was, perhaps, the most important work that I did.

John O’Neal, right, performs with Ron Short of Roadside Theater in Whitesburg, Kentucky. O’Neal had a 30-year collaboration with Roadside Theater and co-created plays that built on each company’s distinct cultural identity. (Photo by Tim Cox)

John O’Neal

John Milton O’Neal Jr. was born on September 25, 1940, in Mound City, Illinois, to schoolteacher parents. He attended Southern Illinois University and graduated with a double major in English and philosophy. John’s life after graduation was all activism. He took a job with the United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice. From there, he joined the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and from CORE moved to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the most uncompromising of the Southern civil rights organizations, where he became a field secretary in Georgia and Mississippi.

COFO, the Council of Federated Organizations, proclaimed a Freedom Summer in Mississippi in 1964. COFO comprised the NAACP, SNCC, and CORE, and most of its staff were SNCC workers, including John. He was based at Tougaloo College, working for SNCC on an adult literacy project that was intended to qualify African Americans to pass the Jim Crow literacy requirements that were then in place in Mississippi. One fateful evening, John, his SNCC colleague Doris Derby, and his housemate Gilbert Moses were sitting and talking about their frustration with the suppression of cultural expression in Mississippi. They had long advocated a cultural arm for SNCC and thought this would be the time to act. All three were theater people to some degree. John had planned to move to New York and join the Lower Manhattan theater scene before he came south and became a movement worker. Moses was a writer for the Mississippi Free Press and had been trained as an actor at Karamu House in Cleveland, a storied organization that deserves its own essay. And Derby was a visual artist and dancer who had studied African diasporic art and cultural anthropology at Hunter College in New York City. She had been active in the rising Black artist scene that was building there at the time.

Said Derby, “Well, if theater means anything, anywhere, it should certainly mean something here. Why don’t we start a theater?” Read that sentence again. It challenges the very meaning of theater. It hangs that meaning on place (rural Mississippi); on audience (rural Black people); and on circumstance (an aggressive and very dangerous challenge to oppression built over centuries). This was ars gratia populis: art not for its own sake, the governing principle of the time, but art for the people, a notion that the establishment despised. Furthermore, this was art that would be made in service to radical political struggle; art made by people who were deep in political activism and seen by them as congruent with activism; art that would call the people to assembly and prepare them for action. This is the story I could never tell at the NEA. But it was the best story.

The Free Southern Theater crew would have thought the project a failure if African Americans in rural Mississippi never gained the right to vote.

Nor was such activism peculiar to John and his friends at COFO. Political relevance was a defining principle of all the movements listed above. Luis Valdez, for example, started El Teatro Campesino as the agitprop arm of Cesar Chavez’s farmworker movement in California. Amiri Baraka developed his cultural center in Harlem and later in Newark as much for political as artistic reasons. The rights of coal miners and other mountain people never stood outside in the rain at Roadside Theater performances.

Please do not misunderstand me: O’Neal, Moses, and Derby were dead serious about theater, as were Baraka and Valdez and Roadside. These are multiple award-winning playwrights and ensembles, after all. It’s just that the FST crew would have thought the project a failure if African Americans in rural Mississippi never gained the right to vote.

So. O’Neal, Derby, and Moses bumped into an obstacle that artist-activists of the 1960s commonly faced: How does one start an organization? What are the elements of a theater? What is it made of? What does it cost and how does one maintain that cost? Where is the money for it and how do we get it? Every year? And what is this 501(c)(3) thing anyway?

Until the 1960s, the field of arts management was nearly vacant. The large established institutions knew management, of course; they knew their way around foundation and government funding; but even they mostly relied upon wealthy individuals who comprised the residue of a Gilded Age patronage system. An artist-led organization like the Martha Graham Dance Company probably could not have qualified for foundation and government grants under today’s guidelines. Ms. Graham (a former settlement house dancer, by the way) and her ilk would climb out of a financial hole by taking some rich acquaintances to dinner and pleading for their help.

The three founders of FST started trying out ideas at the drama department at Tougaloo, the historic Black college in Mississippi, but were puzzled about how to make their conception concrete.

So John, Derby, and Moses went to the woodshed for a couple of days. They needed help. They sent a prospectus for the foundation of the Free Southern Theater to Bill Schechner, Moses’ friend from the Mississippi Free Press. Bill forwarded it to his brother Richard, a professor at the noted Tulane Drama Department. Richard Schechner invited John, Derby, and Moses over for a weekend at his New Orleans apartment, where they discussed the possibility of housing FST at Tulane and a possible repertoire for the company. They had brought their mission statement with them. It was honest: “While it is true that the theater which we propose would by no means be a solution to the tremendous problems faced by people who suffer the oppressive system in the South, we feel that the theater will add a necessary dimension to the current civil rights movement through its unique value as a means of education.” The purpose of the theater was “to use theater as an instrument to stimulate the development of critical and reflective thought among Black people in the South,” and “to support the work of civil rights activists.”

John O’Neal of Junebug Productions performs with Kim Neal Mays of Roadside Theater. (Photo by Jeff Whetstone)

The FST’s received its first contribution in the form of a 12-dollar check from the poet Langston Hughes. Ensemble members gathered the phone numbers of people who should be contacted in the event that they were arrested. The actors were trained to be activists as well as artists.

The Free Southern Theater was built to be lean and portable. The ensemble traveled in a station wagon donated by Schechner and a used pickup truck. “We’re still looking for money to pay for the pickup truck,” John would quip years later.

The FST’s first production, in 1964, was Inherit the Wind, by Jerome Lawrence and (a different) Robert E. Lee, a play about the infamous Scopes trial in a small town in Tennessee in which a schoolteacher was prosecuted for teaching the works of Charles Darwin. Gilbert Moses directed. John O’Neal played Henry Drummond, based on the great defense attorney Clarence Darrow.

In the summer of 1964, Freedom Summer, the Free Southern Theater toured the state of Mississippi, in coordination with COFO. In Greenwood, they performed Martin Duberman’s In White America. Duberman, a white author from the now-defunct Bauhaus-oriented Black Mountain College, near Asheville, North Carolina, constructed this play with brief vignettes from Black and white historical documents. The play needed no set.

Before the curtain, John told the audience, “You are the actors,” and encouraged them to be vocal with their responses to the events on the stage. He wanted the antiphony of the Black church. During the after-play discussion with the audience, an essential aspect of FST shows, a Black man said, “They were telling my story on that stage. Oh, they were telling it. And telling it like it really is.” The CORE workers James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman were murdered in Mississippi during that Summer of Freedom tour. The FST added their deaths to the script.

The productions generally were held in school auditoriums and churches. In Mileston, in Holmes County, the play was done outdoors in an unfinished community center—the original had been bombed. Denise Nicholas, who was there, remembers, “Half the roof was there, the posts were there, but the walls were not up yet.” The stage abutted cotton fields. “It was incredible and beautiful.”

The FST repertoire, of course, featured the plays of Langston Hughes, Lorraine Hansberry, James Baldwin, and Ossie Davis. The nascent Black Arts Movement had not yet reared the great Black playwrights of the 1960s, so the FST took on the task of interpreting the standard repertoire in a manner that related to the audience.

And so, in Ruleville, they mounted Samuel Beckett’s masterpiece of the absurd, Waiting for Godot. FST, then an interracial company (before the Black Power conception took hold), played Godot in whiteface. I initially wondered why John chose such a nihilistic play for a rural Black audience, but the show was very effective. The great Fannie Lou Hamer gave the intermission remarks and told the crowd, “Everyone should pay strict attention to the play because it is due to waiting that the Negro is as far behind as he is.” This insightful remark flew in the face of the standard interpretation of the play, where Godot (God) is the symbol of the failure of religion to deliver on its promise. The FST’s vocal audiences also immediately recognized the character Pozzo, a wealthy, pompous, and oppressive man. During the after-curtain discussion, FST actors interpreted Godot in the context of organization and strategy: how to overcome the Pozzos in their community, and how to stop waiting.

The actors felt that they were playing “the most exciting theater circuit in America.”

A story circle at the Arch Social Club in Baltimore, Maryland. O’Neal and others helped create story circles to ensure that all voices, not just the loudest ones, got a chance to be heard. This circle was in 2020 (the year after O’Neal’s death) at the annual meeting of the Performing Our Future coalition. Participants include members of the Roadside ensemble and others from both rural and urban communities in Maryland, Alabama, Wisconsin, and Kentucky. (Photo by Adam Carr)

The Free Southern Theater raised most of its money in New York, so they took Godot to the city and mounted it at the New School for Social Research. Immediately after the performance, the FBI arrested John O’Neal and charged him with being an “unproven conscientious objector,” as chickenshit a charge as I’ve ever heard of. But these were the Vietnam War years, the years of J. Edgar Hoover’s covert and illegal Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO), and a lot of that kind of thing was going on. John was sentenced to two years of custodial service in Chicago, until he had his sentence transferred to the Bronx.

After his term, John O’Neal returned to New Orleans, where the FST had grown deep roots in the Desire neighborhood (of Streetcar fame). Desire became the home base for FST’s tours to communities across the rural South over the next 15 years. But expenses are cumulative. Debt and overhead grew heavy. Funders, ever fickle, moved on to different emphases. It was time to give the Free Southern Theater a dignified death.

Junebug Jabbo Jones

From the enduring DNA of the Free Southern Theater, after its demise in 1980, John O’Neal built Junebug Productions. Junebug was as lean as the original FST and designed to stay that way, focused more on developing original material whose exposed roots dug deep into southern rural culture and beyond. Its salient stock character, the creature of ordeal and survival, was Junebug Jabbo Jones. Mr. Jones actually antedated the FST and, like the FST, originated in SNCC.

Junebug was a common midcentury nickname in the Black community, particularly in the South. For the SNCC workers, Junebug became an archetype—that is, a clever statement or action would elicit the comment “That’s something Junebug would say [or do].” John O’Neal eventually added the Jabbo Jones to Junebug, the full name caught on, and the character became a common reference throughout the organization. He was a figment to believe in, a universal repository of wisdom, creativity, and courage.

Jennifer Lawson, a longtime SNCC worker from Fairfield, Alabama, who went on to lead the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, remembers that many SNCC people from northern colleges were intensely interested in rural southern folk culture. She once told me about Worth Long, who gained a national reputation for collecting the music of the churches, streets, and juke joints. “We could be anywhere in Alabama or Mississippi, and Worth would know which churches had the most powerful music, which preachers could send his members into glossolalia, where you could hear the best blues, or which checker clubs you could hear the biggest and best lies in.” He also knew how to find the best “outsider” art (a patronizing term), whether pictures, sculpture, installations, or graveyard carvings. SNCC intellectuals like Worth and the prolific and insightful author Charlie Cobb could discuss such art within the context of social and esthetic theory. They took the culture of the rural South as seriously as they took the material conditions that they were endeavoring to change. It was all a part of commitment.

Junebug Jabbo Jones was an archetype, a trickster like Anansi the spider or the Signifying Monkey. He was mother wit in motion, a voice you always stopped and listened to. Junebug Jabbo Jones was the perfect signature for John O’Neal. It was reflexive that he built Junebug Productions from the marrow of this most captivating character.

Junebug Productions

For the next 36 years, John tied Junebug Productions to the work of local southern activists. One example was the Environmental Justice Project of the United Church of Christ (UCC). In the 1980s, the UCC identified that of all communities, African American and other poor neighborhoods were the greatest victims of industrial pollution. They coined the term environmental racism. Junebug Productions made drama out of this degradation of the environment and its resultant corruption of the human body, including the high rates of cancer in the Black community. Cooperative productions would be a salient feature of Junebug Productions from its first season until today. Junebug/Jack, written and produced with Roadside Theater, was described as “a 30-year cultural exchange, performance, playwriting, and national touring collaboration.” Junebug Productions has hosted and/or played at Roadside in Whitesburg, Kentucky, the Bronx Puerto Rican theater Pregones, A Travelling Jewish Theatre in San Francisco, and Urban Bush Women in New York.

Often these associations produced joint productions. I once saw a collaborative piece (Promise of a Love Song) between Roadside, Junebug, and Pregones produced by the Artist and Community Connection, helmed by the Holdens, wherein the experiences, legends, and music of the three communities flowed seamlessly into one another without damaging the pride of self of any culture. They did not pretend to be the same; nor did they pretend to be different.

John noticed that all too often, one loud, long-winded individual, usually a man, dominated the discussion. As an antidote, John turned to the story circle.

A device that John developed, and from which much theater was produced, was the story circle. I have mentioned that after-curtain (if there were curtains) conversations with FST audiences were held from the very beginning, in large part to prepare the rural audiences for the political action (say, voter registration) that SNCC workers were organizing. The practice endured after the SNCC relationship expired. But John noticed that all too often, one loud, long-winded individual, usually a man, dominated the discussion.

As an antidote, John turned to the story circle. Carol Bebelle, the former executive director of the Ashé Cultural Arts Center in New Orleans, said, “He really saw the audience as being the other part of the theater performance. It was, ‘We brought something for you. Do you have something to give us?’” Participants were invited to sit in a circle and tell stories. According to O’Neal, story circles were governed by “as few rules as possible and no laws. Well, maybe one law: the law of listening  You don’t have to like the story that somebody else tells, but you do have to respect their right to tell it.” It was a brilliant piece of civic engagement and a fecund source of material, which Junebug Productions would continue to develop in their work with Roadside.

In Sum

I’m going to end here, though the story is far from complete. It seems irrelevant to list the 18 plays that John wrote or his numerous residencies and awards. It is his commitment, his originality, his belief in a tangible and culturally rooted theater, which changed at least pieces of the world, that I wanted to write about. He summed himself up:

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 the 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 himself or herself   It includes the whole spirit of life that we participate in, as well as the whole political, social and economic life.

But I will tell you about one award. At one of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters conferences (please don’t make me look up the year), John O’Neal was a featured artist. A “Conversation With…  ”was held, and I was the other conversant. As a means of after-work stress relief, I had started making necklaces and earrings, and before the conversation began, I presented John with the first (and only) Annual A. B. Spellman Award for Elegant Relevance. I handed him a necklace I had made with snake bones and a replica of a medallion that enslaved skilled workers were required to wear when they moved unescorted around Charleston. John’s medallion read “carpenter,” which I thought apt, as John was such a builder. He was amused. He thought that it was something Junebug Jabbo Jones might wear.

A. B. Spellman is a poet and essayist who has written extensively on jazz. During a 30-year career at the National Endowment for the Arts, he served several roles, including director of the Expansion Arts Program and deputy chairman.

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