Foundations of A Southern Black Arts Movement
The Free Southern Theater (FST) was founded by John O'Neal, Doris Derby, and Gilbert Moses in 1964 as an integrated drama workshop at Tougaloo College (Tougaloo, Mississippi). At the time the theater was established, O'Neal and Derby were both field directors for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Jackson, Mississippi. What O'Neal, Derby, and Moses did not foresee was that the FST would serve as the foundation for a visual and literary arts movement that would permeate the South in the 1960s and 1970s.
In the prospectus for the establishment of the Free Southern Theater, the founders stated their vision: "Our fundamental objective is to stimulate creative and reflective thought among Negroes in Mississippi and other Southern states by the establishment of a legitimate theater. We theorize that within the Southern situation a theatrical form and style can be developed that is as unique to the Negro people as the origins of blues and jazz."
In this announcement, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee detailed the establishment of a "repertory theater." This is evidence of how the ideals of the civil rights movement, and the participation of Gilbert Moses, Doris Derby, and John O'Neal in SNCC, influenced their expectations regarding the Free Southern Theater.
In this letter, Richard Schechner, editor of the Tulane Drama Review, advised Doris Derby, John O'Neal and Gilbert Moses on the operation of a theater group and offered his assistance. Schechner described "Purlie Victorious" as, "an abominably bad play," but still recommended it as a suitable theatrical performance for the Free Southern Theater to produce.
A program for the plays, "Purlie Victorious" and "Waiting for Godot." Although the production of an absurdist work by an Irish playwright may have seemed at odds with the Free Southern Theater's goals, upon viewing a production of Waiting for Godot in Ruleville, Mississippi, civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer commented that the play should be familiar to any African American who is still waiting for equality.
In the summer of 1964, also known as Freedom Summer, the Free Southern Theater adapted the play, "In White America" by Martin Duberman. The play depicted the social climate of the era, and specifically, the murders of three Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) field workers - Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner. They were murdered on June 21, 1964, in Philadelphia, Mississippi, by Ku Klux Klan members.
This letter written by Erika Munck, managing editor of the Tulane Drama Review, provided an account of the audience's reaction to a 1964 performance of "In White America" in Indianola, Mississippi. A group of white men attended the performance and it was assumed that they were members of the White Citizens Council, a white supremacist organization. They did not disrupt the performance.
The main supporter of the Free Southern Theater (FST) in New Orleans was Richard Schechner, a Tulane University professor and editor of the Tulane Drama Review. In this letter to Schechner, before the FST relocated, O'Neal apologized for not being able to make a planned visit to meet him. O'Neal also discussed visiting theater programs at Southern Illinois University and at different universities in New Orleans.
Being an integrated theater, the troupe was sometimes threatened in the many small southern towns they performed in. The Deacons for Defense and Justice, an African American civil rights group, often assisted with protecting Free Southern Theater's members from violence by white supremacists. In his notes, Tom Dent discussed this fear of retaliation after a performance in Bogalusa, Louisiana. He wrote, “There was buzzing outside, harried, anxious conversations. Weapons were visible. One of our workshop group said, “just get me to Lake Pontchartrain (which borders New Orleans), I’ll run the rest of the way.” No one spoke. We sat around gloomily....”
Confrontations became a common occurrence after the Free Southern Theater's (FST) move to New Orleans. Members were consistently embroiled in ideological battles about the type of theater FST should become. Gilbert Moses, influenced by the rise of Black Nationalism, took the steps to reorganize the FST into an all Black company. This prompted many to push against the disintegration of the FST as an integrated theater. Another primary conflict was whether the FST should be avant-garde or a community based theater with a focus on mainly serving African American audiences.
In this letter Roberta Y. Jones, who oversaw fundraising and public relations for the Free Southern Theater (FST), discussed John O'Neal's proposed leave of absence from the organization. There would be many absences and returns to the FST for O'Neal. The first being in 1966 when O'Neal was required to take a two year sentence to fulfill his military requirement as a conscientious objector.
In this letter from Tom Dent to the Board of Directors, he provided an account of the Free Southern Theater's identity crisis. Dent stated, "the most central issue in this conflict...was a disagreement over whether the FST should be a basically New York oriented theater....or whether it would be a New Orleans southern oriented theater."
In this letter, Tom Dent detailed the Free Southern Theater's (FST) internal conflicts which stemmed from members' differing opinions about its future. Dent became Chairman of the Board of the FST after Richard Schechner resigned. Dent would leave the FST in 1970, the year that he wrote this letter.
Although the majority of fundraising for the Free Southern Theater (FST) was conducted from their New York office, which was maintained primarily for that purpose, the troupe garnered support and admiration from their key constituent groups as well. The personalities affiliated with the FST, including its Board of Directors, were a who's who of Black and white literary and performing artists. However, having such notable connections did not prevent the FST from struggling financially during the years it operated.
Denise Nicholas, perhaps best known as the actress from Room 222 and In the Heat of the Night, began her acting career with the Free Southern Theater (FST). Nicholas married Gilbert Moses in 1964 and soon left her studies at Tulane University to tour with the FST. She toured for two years before moving to New York City to join the Negro Ensemble Company. Here, Nicholas wrote about memorable performances in Jonesboro and Bogalusa, Louisiana, as well as the financial struggles which plagued the FST.
The Free Southern Theater's all-star cast of its national Sponsoring Committee is noted on its letterheads of the 1960s and 1970s. Correspondence revealed that this was not a purely ceremonial committee and that its members were active behind-the-scenes supporters. In the early 1970s, Arthur Ashe and Julian Bond co-chaired the national committee, which was mostly involved in fundraising and other advocacy.
In this letter to Richard Schechner, Tom Dent mentioned how the Free Southern Theater moved away from its goal as a performing arts theater towards being an outlet for the literary arts in the South. This occurred during the concomitant absences of Gilbert Moses and John O'Neal. Dent described this evolution saying, "[Gil] and O'Neal's baby grew while [they] were away, and they're having one hell of a time adjusting to that fact."
In this press release, the Free Southern Theater announced the organization of a BLKARTSOUTH workshop in New Orleans to, "concentrate on the development of new literary and theatrical material." The audio provides insight into some of the topics addressed by BLKARTSOUTH poets.
The Blk Mind Jockeys emerged as a group of young writers in the Free Southern Theater's drama and writing workshops. They tended to create poetry more than any other genre, and their works were read, discussed, and criticized at weekly workshops. This audio recording features a rehearsal of poetry by Barbara Malcolm of the Blk Mind Jockey poets. The poem was printed in the June 1960 issue of Nkombo.
In this letter to Jack Sawyer, Program Manager of WYES-TV, Bill Rouselle asked for clarifications on content violations that the creators of Nation Time allegedly committed during the airing of an episode. This letter also revealed how Nation Time's Afrocentric content may have drawn the ire of white viewers.
In 1980, John O'Neal wrote the first of his five plays featuring the folk character named Junebug Jabbo Jones. The play called, "Don't Start Me To Talking or I'll Tell Everything I Know: Sayings and Writings from the Life of Junebug Jabbo Jones," featured Jones as a representation of the, "wisdom of ordinary Black folk." O'Neal toured "Don't Start Me To Talking" throughout the South.
In 1985, John O'Neal organized a jazz funeral and reunion for the Free Southern Theater (FST). The event not only formally recognized the end of FST, but the birth of Junebug Productions. Junebug Productions continues today and has focused on local community-based arts programs, local and touring productions of theatrical works, as well as other community programs such as The Color Line Project. This project utilized the, "story circle method," to collect stories about the Civil Rights Movement.
Exhibition curated by Felicia Render, Andrew Salinas, Laura Thomson and Christopher Harter. Digital exhibition created by Chianta Dorsey. This digital exhibition was supported by a grant from the Patrick F. Taylor Foundation. It is an expansion of the physical exhibition, “The Free Southern Theater and the Black Arts Movement,” held at the Amistad Research Center in 2014.
The Amistad Research Center is committed to collecting, preserving, and providing open access to original materials that reference the social and cultural importance of America's ethnic and racial history, the African Diaspora, and global social justice movements. As the nation's oldest, largest and most comprehensive independent archive, the Amistad's holds 800 manuscript collections which include over ten million documents from the 1780s to present, 250,000 original photographs dating from 1859, 1200 audiovisual recordings, 40,000 book titles, 2000 periodicals titles, and over 400 pieces of fine art dating from the 19th century.