Free Southern Theater (1963-1978) | Amistad Research Center
Founded in 1963 by John O’Neal, Doris Derby, and Gilbert Moses at Tougaloo College in Mississippi, the Free Southern Theater was designed as a cultural and educational extension for the civil rights movement in the South. Closely aligned with the Black Arts Movement – and more specifically the Black Theatre Movement – several members of the Free Southern Theater were figures of national prominence. The leaders aimed to introduce theater to the Deep South – free of charge – to communities which had no theater in their communities and little in the way of cultural production. With both political as well as aesthetic objectives, the group aspired to validate positive aspects of African American culture and to act as a voice for social protest. Its brief history was marked by internal artistic and managerial disagreement, but the legacy of Free Southern Theater serves as a model for other community theater groups across the nation.
At the time the Free Southern Theater was founded, O’Neal and Derby were both field directors for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Jackson, Mississippi. The Free Southern Theater’s interconnectedness to the civil rights movement and ambitious goals are reflected in one of the foundational documents drawn up by group leaders. In "A General Prospectus for the Establishment of a Free Southern Theater" the leaders outline their key objectives:
"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, thereby providing the opportunity in the theater and the associated art forms. 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 origin of blues and jazz. A combination of art and social awareness can evolve into plays written for a Negro audience, which relate to the problems within the Negro himself, and within the Negro community."
Realizing that the young cofounders lacked the experience to successfully organize a burgeoning theater troupe on their own, they recruited the help of Tulane University professor Richard Schechner. Schechner eventually would serve in roles ranging from advisor to the chairman of the board of directors. With an initial company of three African American and five white actors, the Free Southern Theater toured rural Mississippi and Louisiana with Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot as one of its first plays. Within two years, the Free Southern Theater had grown to 23 members, including a small administrative staff. By 1966 all actors in the troupe were African American and the plays – featuring works by Amiri Baraka as well as plays created by members of Free Southern Theater – were almost exclusively by African American playwrights. This reflects a shift toward Black Nationalism which mirrored that within the civil rights movement itself.
Under financial duress, the Free Southern Theater moved to New Orleans in late 1965, hoping to attract financial support from New Orleans’ burgeoning African American middle class. However, this move caused some discord among members who felt that the move to New Orleans abandoned their initial cause of developing culture within poor rural communities to the rural poor. After Gilbert Moses, Richard Schechner, and John O’Neal left the Free Southern Theater in 1966, Tom Dent came to New Orleans to lead the troupe and had an almost immediate impact on the administrative and artistic direction of the Free Southern Theater. Under Dent’s leadership and with the help of Val Ferdinand(Kalamu ya Salaam), the Free Southern Theater implemented a community writing and acting workshop, BLKARTSOUTH. In these workshops, members began to write and produce scripts which were incorporated into the company’s repertoire. The Free Southern Theater eventually settled in the Desire neighborhood of New Orleans.
Gilbert Moses and John O’Neal both eventually returned to the Free Southern Theater and resumed leading roles, and though Tom Dent left an official role in the Free Southern Theater, the three remained key creative forces within the company. "Purlie Victorious" by Ossie Davis and Samuel Beckett’s "Waiting for Godot" were among the first plays produced by the company, and they toured in repertory through Mississippi, Tennessee, Georgia, and Louisiana in 1964 and 1965. The company, however, often adapted well-known plays to suit their purposes. The company sparked controversy when actors performed "Waiting for Godot" in whiteface. The company adapted Martin Duberman’s "In White America" for audiences in Mississippi to include a section dealing with the murders of civil rights martyrs James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman.
After the initial plays featuring universally-known plays and playwrights, the Free Southern Theater began to create and perform their own plays in the community workshops. Two plays by John O’Neal in particular embody the spirit of the Free Southern Theater at its apex. "When the Opportunity Scratches, Itch It" comments on the power dynamics between different social classes in the African American community. "Where Is the Blood of Your Fathers?" utilizes a variety of historical texts such as Frederick Douglass’ autobiography and David Walker’s "Appeal" to dramatize episodes in the everyday life of a slave. In accord with the company’s educational objectives, performers encouraged audience interaction and performances were routinely followed by discussions with audience members.
With free admission to performances for all as a primary objective of the Free Southern Theater, funds were always in short supply and troupe administrators were constantly involved with aggressive fundraising activities. The Rockefeller and Ford Foundations contributed sizable grants to help the company meet its nearly $100,000 annual budget. Arthur Ashe, Bill Cosby, Harry Belafonte, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Julian Bond were involved with benefit drives, and Langston Hughes contributed the troupe’s first-ever monetary donation. Despite the endorsement of celebrity benefactors, the Free Southern Theater endured a nearly constant struggle with finances. The troupe lost creative momentum and financial support at the dawn of the civil rights era.
The Free Southern Theater influenced community-based radical theaters across the country. Additionally, as one of the first local theaters that remained central to the Black Theater Movement, several members contributed to the influential, but short-lived, journal Black Theatre. John O’Neal organized a Free Southern Theater second line and symposium in 1985 to celebrate and commemorate the lasting legacy of the company. O’Neal’s Junebug Productions is widely considered to be the successor to the Free Southern Theater.
Dent, Thomas C., Richard Schechner, and 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: Bobbs-Merrill, 1969.
Fabre, Genevieve. “The Free Southern Theater, 1963-1979.” Black American Literature Forum 17.2 (Summer 1983): 55-59.
Harding, James M., and Cindy Rosenthal. Restaging the Sixites: Radical Theaters and Their Legacies. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2006.