Inspired by and part of the civil rights movement, the Free Southern Theater started at Tougaloo College in Jackson in 1963. The small group of activist actors and directors began with the twin objectives of using drama as a form of social protest and inspiration and taking serious theater to isolated, impoverished people, especially African Americans in the South.
The founders were artist Doris Derby, journalist Gilbert Moses, and actor-playwright John O’Neal, northern-born African Americans who had moved to Mississippi as part of the civil rights movement. Moses and O’Neal worked for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. The theater group soon added Richard Schechner, a drama professor at Tulane University. For its first performance, the leaders chose In White America, a historical play about African American oppression and resistance written by Martin Duberman. The cast included three African American and three white actors who performed the play on small stages, at freedom schools, and in other public areas beginning on 31 July 1964 at Tougaloo and continuing on to at least fifteen other Mississippi towns and cities over the next five months. Because the group’s first season coincided with the Mississippi Summer Project, it added the murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, along with some freedom songs, to the script.
The Free Southern Theater emphasized its commitment to poor people facing discrimination by presenting all plays for free and by holding discussions during intermission and after the plays. At a 1965 performance in Ruleville, Fannie Lou Hamer rose at the intermission of Waiting for Godot to announce that food was on its way from Chicago and made a point of comparing African American men who merely sat around waiting for change to the characters in the play.
The Free Southern Theater faced numerous challenges in the mid- and late 1960s. In the midst of the civil rights movement, some whites opposed the tours. In Indianola, police watched as two hundred people attended In White America. For a while in 1965, the Deacons for Defense rode with the group for protection. Other problems included a persistent lack of funds and disputes over the content and direction of the performances. In 1966 the Free Southern Theater took up headquarters in the Desire neighborhood of New Orleans, in part to be closer to a larger community of African American professional actors. Under the direction of New Orleans native Tom Dent, the Free Southern Theater focused on material that came from and was exclusively about African Americans, not just the broader themes of power and liberation common in the theater’s first two years.
In 1985 John O’Neal staged a jazz funeral in New Orleans to mark the death of the Free Southern Theater. But the theater inspired several other groups to take drama and poetry into southern African American communities, in part to encourage a wider range of expression and in part to continue the political work of the Free Southern Theater. In 1968 BLKARTSOUTH formed a network of creative artists who, according to poet-playwright Barbara Nayo Watkins, considered their work “part of the movement, part of the struggle.” In the 1970s Watkins worked with O’Neal to create a character for solo performance, Junebug Jabbo Jones, who used African American vernacular language, the blues, and migration stories. In 1976 Watkins, O’Neal, and others started Alternate Roots (Regional Organization of Theaters South) to use African American settings and speech for alternative drama in the South.
- Jan Cohen-Cruz, Local Acts: Community-Based Performance in the United States (2005)
- Thomas C. Dent, Richard Schechner, and Gilbert Moses, The Free Southern Theater (1969)
- James Harding and Cindy Rosenthal, eds., Restaging the Sixties: Radical Theaters and Their Legacies (2006)
- James Edward Smethurst, The Black Arts Movement: Literary Nationalism in the 1960s and 1970s (2005)
- Ellen L. Tripp, “Free Southern Theater: There Is Always a Message” (PhD dissertation, University of North Carolina at Greensboro, 1986)