Free Southern Theater
A man leaned forward in his chair as he watched the Free Southern Theater perform Martin Duberman’s In White America on a makeshift stage at the local Freedom School in Greenwood, Mississippi. The play traced the experiences of African Americans from colonial times to the present, exposing Black Mississippians to a side of history that they rarely glimpsed, at least in their public schools. “They were telling my story on that stage,” the man told Len Holt, a Black National Lawyers Guild attorney working with the Movement. “Oh they were telling it… and telling it like it really is.”
While COFO workers and summer volunteers set up the framework for the MFDP during the summer of 1964, the Free Southern Theater traveled the state, performing and hosting theater workshops. The performances were held in Freedom Schools and churches. Some were held on outside stages. In Mileston, in Holmes County, FST performed in a half-finished community center after the original was bombed by white terrorists. The venue was perfect for the play. “Half the roof was there, the posts were there, but the walls were not up yet,” recalled FST actress Denise Nicholas. The stage extended into the neighboring cotton fields. “It was incredible and beautiful,” Nicholas remembered.
The Free Southern Theater was founded in the winter of 1963-1964 by Doris Derby, John O’Neal, and Gilbert Moses. The trio was drawn together by their artistic and movement backgrounds. Derby, who studied African diasporic art and culture at Hunter College in New York City, was a SNCC field secretary in Southwest Georgia before heading up an adult literacy project in Jackson, Mississippi. O’Neal was a recent graduate from Southern Illinois University where he performed in a number of plays. After graduation, he dropped his plans to move to New York in order to work with SNCC full-time in Mississippi. Moses was the most established actor of the group, having already performed in off-Broadway productions at the age of 21. He was working as a reporter for the Mississippi Free Press, a movement paper based in Jackson, when he met O’Neal and Derby.
Dispirited by the censorship of creative expression in Mississippi, they decided to form a theater troupe. “Our fundamental objective,” they wrote in 1963, “is to stimulate creative and reflective thought among Negroes in Mississippi and other Southern states by the establishment of a legitimate theater.” They began hosting workshops at Tougaloo College–a historically Black college supportive of the Movement–and assembled a cast for its first set of plays. They also traveled to New York City to spread word about the upstart theater and raise funds.
The Free Southern Theater’s founders wanted to create “a new idiom, a new genre, a theatrical form as unique as blues, jazz, or gospel.” They sought to build a new institution of theater that spoke to the experiences of poor Black southerners. This was evident, not only in the plays that they chose to perform but also in the ways they conducted their performances. Before each showing of In White America during Freedom Summer, O’Neal told the audience, “You are the actors.” And the audience often took this statement seriously, voicing their thoughts and input throughout the play. Sometimes, they even joined the actors on stage. FST encouraged this behavior, purposefully blurring the line between the performance and reality.
FST continued on long after Freedom Summer, spearheading the Black Arts Movement. In the late sixties, the theater moved to New Orleans where it organized community theater workshops for “those who thought they would never get a chance to act, write, sing, or dance on stage.” The theater troupe continued to tour several southern states and held workshops after each performance to help the audience dissect the meaning of the play and how it applied to their lives. As Denise Nicholas explained, “the theater, like literature, can be a tool of the community, of illumination of the human condition.”
Elizabeth A. Barron, “Sayings from the Life and Writings of John O’Neal,” Southern Quarterly (Summer 1987), 65-72.
Elizabeth A. Barron and Donald R. Mott, “John O’Neal: An Interview,” Southern Quarterly (Summer 1987), 75-84.
Thomas C. Dent, et al., eds., The Free Southern Theater by the Free Southern Theater (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1969).
Doris Derby, “Sometimes in the Ground Troops, Sometimes in the Leadership,” Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC, edited by Faith Holsaert S. et al. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012), 436-445.
John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994).
Christina Larocco, “‘COFO is Not Godot’: The Free Southern Theater, the Black Freedom Movement, and the Search for a Usable Aesthetic,” Journal of the Social History Society (2015), 509-526.
Denise Nicholas, “A Grand Romantic Notion,” Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC, edited by Faith S. Holsaert, et al. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012), 257-265.
John O’Neal, Don’t Start Me To Talking. . . Plays of Struggle and Liberation (New York: Theater Communications Group, 2016).
John O’Neal, “The Free Southern Theater: Living in the Danger Zone,” Black Scholar (Summer 1979), 11-13.
Joe Street, “Reconstructing Education from the Bottom Up: SNCC’s 1964 Mississippi Summer Project and African American Culture,” Journal of American Studies (August 2004) 273-296.