The Free Southern Theater 

Amistad Research Center

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.

The Free Southern Theater (FST) was designed to provide high standards of performance by utilizing professional actors, directors, and technicians. Initially, the program encompassed a seasonal traveling repertory theater, workshops for college students and community members, a sponsorship of artists and performers in Jackson, Mississippi, and an acting apprenticeship. With founders who were embedded in the Civil Rights Movement through their participation with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the FST's goals were connected to the movement. Their high ambitions were reflected in the organization's charter documents. 

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 letter, Free Southern Theater (FST) founder, John O'Neal, discussed the positive responses to the FST prospectus. He also described the different roles that he, Gilbert Moses and Doris Derby would assume in the organization.

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.

A list of the charter members of the Board of Directors for the Free Southern Theater. Represented are various individuals from Southern institutions and organizations including Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee leaders, James Forman, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Robert "Bob" Moses.

In this letter to Ted Shine, the Technical Director at Howard University, Gilbert Moses discussed the Free Southern Theater's relationship to Tougaloo College and fundraising opportunities. He also requested Shine's assistance.

Early Plays and Touring
The Free Southern Theater's (FST) initial touring season began in 1964 with an ensemble company in Jackson, Mississippi. The group toured rural Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and adjoining Southern states with the objective of performing free. They targeted audiences concerned with the social, racial and political climates of the time. The FST's 1964-1965 touring season highlighted three plays: "Purlie Victorious" by actor, playwright, and civil rights activist Ossie Davis; Martin Duberman's "In White America;" and Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot."

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.

The first Free Southern Theater performance that occurred outside of the south was in New York City. This flyer detailed the performance of "Waiting for Godot."

Murray Levy and Gilbert Moses rehearsing for the play "Waiting for Godot."

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.

Actor John Cannon waving the American flag during a performance of "In White America."

New Orleans and Questions of Identity
The intended permanent home of the Free Southern Theater (FST) was to be Jackson, Mississippi. However, harassment by white supremacists and the lack of a significant artistic base in Mississippi led John O'Neal and Gilbert Moses to move the FST to New Orleans in 1964. The administration of the company was often divided over its direction and identity. These conflicts raged over a number of years between founders O'Neal and Moses (Doris Derby left before FST's move), the institution's Board of Directors based in New York, artistic director Tom Dent, and other FST members such as Richard Schechner, Denise Nicholas, Murray Levy and Robert Costley. The FST also experienced a host of financial woes, in addition to its internal issues, that continuously threatened the group's very existence.

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.

In this letter to New Orleans native Dr. Leonard Burns, Gilbert Moses and John O'Neal discussed the theater's decision to move to New Orleans. Before the move, Moses and O'Neal attempted to gain local support and determine interest levels from the African American community within the city.

A flyer for the Free Southern Theater’s 1965 Grand Opening in New Orleans, Louisiana, at St. John’s Institutional Missionary Baptist Church.

In this press release, the opening of Free Southern Theater's 1965 season in New Orleans, Louisiana is described.

A brochure for the Free Southern Theater in New Orleans, circa 1966.

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 to Tom Dent, Gilbert Moses spoke about some of the personal issues that forced him to leave the Free Southern Theater.

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.

Particularly in its first few years, the theater had an effective fundraising office in New York. As this document reveals, the Free Southern Theater had acclaimed supporters who helped sustain both an adequate budget and creative momentum.

In this letter, Hollywood actor, Paul Newman solicited donations to help establish the Free Southern Theater.

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.

BLKARTSOUTH began as a nameless community poetry and writing workshop of the Free Southern Theater.  Theater leaders, Tom Dent and Kalamu ya Salaam, hoped the workshop would serve as an incubator for the development of new African American writers.  Soon after its founding, BLKARTSOUTH began organizing performances of its members’ original poetry and other creative works.  Venues ranged from university auditoriums to community centers to the annual meetings of organizations such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.  BLKARTSOUTH published nine issues of the literary magazine "Nkombo" between 1968 and 1974.  Much of the creative output of BLKARTSOUTH went undocumented since most members viewed poetry as a primarily oral, rather than written, art form.

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.

BLKARTSOUTH poetry rehearsal, 1969

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.

BLKARTSOUTH poetry rehearsal, 1969

The art cover for the March, 1971 publication of "Nkombo." The artist was A.G. Bradley.

Nation Time and the FST's Expansion Into Television
The Free Southern Theater (FST) expanded into the realm of television with the creation of Nation Time. The television show originated as a collaborative effort between WYES-TV, a local television station in New Orleans, and the FST. The show was hosted by Bill Rouselle, and ran for two seasons beginning in 1972 until it was unceremoniously cancelled in 1974. 

An outline of the objective, format, and content for the television show Nation Time. It was produced by the Free Southern Theater in conjunction with WYES-TV in New Orleans. The creators were heavily focused on conveying an exhaustive history of African Americans in the United States.

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 this letter to Bill Rouselle, host of Nation Time, Jack Sawyer discussed WYES-TV's decision to discontinue airing Nation Time. He cited content that did not appeal to the, "broader Black community," as one of the primary reasons for the cancellation of the television show.

FST Funeral and the Birth of Junebug Productions
As funding for the arts declined during the 1970s, African American theater groups were especially hit hard. Facing decreasing financial support to pay Free Southern Theater's actors, founder John O’Neal chose to end the theater troupe. However, O’Neal’s theatrical efforts did not stop with the closing of the FST. FST’s successor, Junebug Productions, developed out of O’Neal’s one-man show featuring the character Junebug Jabbo Jones and his efforts to continue building African American theater in New Orleans.

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.

A typescript draft for the play, "Don't Start Me To Talking or I'll Tell Everything I Know: Sayings and Writings from the Life of Junebug Jabbo Jones."

Meeting notes for the production of John O'Neal's one man play, "Don't Start Me To Talking or I'll Tell Everything I Know: Sayings and Writings from the Life of Junebug Jabbo Jones."

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.

A Junebug Productions and Contemporary Arts Center flyer, "From the Mississippi Delta."

A Junebug Productions flyer for theater performances, “Blue Lights and River Songs” and “They’re Poisoning the Air and I Can’t Breathe.”

A booklet for the Echo Arts Festival sponsored by Junebug Productions.

Amistad Research Center
Credits: Story

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.

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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