A “Brown Bag” Presentation for the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi, February 26, 2014.
In late November of 1985 in the city of New Orleans, theater groups from around the country, artists, writers, community activists, and people from the neighborhood “took it to the streets” to celebrate the “death” of the Free Southern Theater, an activist theater group establi
shed in 1963. The FST was a staple in the New Orleans community after it moved from Mississippi in the mid-60s to Dryades St. and a few other locations in underprivileged neighborhoods around New Orleans where they served their community through entertainment, acting and writing workshops, and even simply as a gathering place. They stopped producing plays around 1980 as members and participants diverged energy into other projects around the city, the South, and beyond. Founder John O’Neal and others involved decided to host an event to commemorate their history and influence. During this week-long series, various ethnic and community activist theater troupes, performance collectives, poets, writers, and activists from around the United States paid tribute to the FST’s legacy as an early groundbreaker for community-oriented activist art.
The Free Southern Theater was founded in Jackson, Mississippi in 1963, when northern activists migrated South for Freedom Summer. John O’Neal, Doris Derby, and Gilbert Moses were all college-educated activists from the North who settled in Mississippi affiliated with SNCC and similar endeavors. They decided to start a theater group not only because of their love of drama, but also because they felt that freedom of cultural expression was a necessary addition to the fight for political freedom and that one could not be achieved without the other. The founders John O’Neal, Gilbert Moses, and Doris Derby claimed it to be “a theater for those who have no theater” and to open a “new area of protest” in the black freedom struggles of the 1960s. The FST toured towns and rural areas in Mississippi and the Deep South like McComb, Indianola, Rueville, Hattiesburg, and urban centers such as New Orleans, Atlanta, Memphis, Houston, etc. Some examples of their repertoire include: Martin Duberman’s In White America, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Ossie Davis’s Purlie Victorious, Bertolt Brecht’s The Rifles of Senora Carrar, and then increasingly plays written in-staff by founders John O’Neal and Gilbert Moses, Tom Dent, and Kalamu ya Salaam. Financial pressure overwhelmed FST and the continued to struggle for funding throughout their tenure; they mostly relied on government grants and private foundation money in order to keep their performances free of charge to their target audiences. However, this resulted in creative adaptations of performances- they reached for unexpected scripts that they did not have to pay royalties for such as Eugene Ionesco’s The Lesson and created hybridized variety shows, performance poetry, and a puppet show for children.
It was of the civil rights movement, yet it created something different and necessarily subversive. Performance was hard to condemn within the same parameter as protest. After all, it is just a play. When the FST performed Martin Duberman’s In White America, a documentary performance of important speeches and moments in African American history, a brigade of White Citizens Council members appeared to “attend” a performance in Indianola. White police with guns tensely stood next to Deacons for Defense, black militia with guns, outside the building of the performance. The white audience members sat in the back silent and stone-faced and watched. According to the different accounts of this tense moment, the men had no reason to act and thus left peacefully. It is an surprisingly peaceful ending considering that an integrated audience sat watching a documentary on African American history written by a Jewish communist in Mississippi in 1964. Integrated performance, shifted and bent the boundaries of hate and violence associated with protest- through the social disruption and confusion, messages were able to be communicated and communities were able to gather.
The conference culminated in a jazz funeral where the participants danced the second line in a procession through the Tremé to Congo Square behind a casket filled with Free Southern Theater memorabilia. The funeral evolved into a demonstration to show that 1960s activism was not dead, but rather reincarnated into myriad oppositional forms of cultural expression. The funeral was a multicultural performance piece reaching across ethnic, racial, regional, ideological boundaries; their common ground was alternative artistic expression and community activism. This event stands as an essential moment in the cultural history of the U.S. and– even though it reflects the scholarly endeavors within ethnic studies, Southern studies, African American studies, performance studies, and studies of activist literature– it is largely unaccounted for in all of the above fields. This oversight mirrors an overall dearth of scholarship on cultural activism in the South during and after the 1960s– and especially the relationship between the global socio-political changes and how this impacted and expanded literary forms. After all, how does one present an ephemeral performance as a literary text? If we consider that the cultural confluence of the funeral shares in an extended legacy that is still widespread today, we must ask: what gets excluded if these moments remain obscured from literary discussion?
The descent onto New Orleans in 1985 meant more than just an excuse to les bon temps rouller. I read their participation in the funerary ritual of a jazz second line as a moment of positioning their own artistic identity within a circum- Caribbean (or circum-Atlantic) framework. Jessica Adams writes in the introduction to Just Below South: Intercultural Performance in the Caribbean and the U.S. South, “The circum-Caribbean emerged out of the radical upheavals of the Middle Passage, the subsequent confluence of African European, and Native American and later Asian and South Asian languages, the mutual unintelligibility that needed to be overcome for work or love or revolution to occur. It emerged out of the preeminence of oral traditions among slave and Native American cultures as well as among illiterate whites, and the common prohibition against slaves acquiring literacy” (7). New Orleans’s position as the northernmost Caribbean city reminds us of the blurred boundary between the U.S. and the Global South. While the history of experimental theater in the U.S. has traditionally been placed in context of the European avant-garde, I argue that the cultural impact of the circum-Caribbean/Atlantic is just as essential, if not more influential on alternative community-based performance, artistic, and literary production. This lineage of influence- or to use Joseph Roach’s term, these “genealogies of performance”(25)- find roots in the small towns of Mississippi and the multicultural gumbo of New Orleans.
They represented points on a map of influence, which I represent on a google map with quotes and sounds to help digitally recreate the performance around New Orleans, The Free Southern Theater Conference, 1985.
Or you can read the following text. All quotes are from “The Performance Festival” by John O’Neal.
The wake began on Friday evening at the Contemporary Arts Center after the performance by Jomandi Productions who paid homage to the FST by producing the Gilbert Moses play Roots- about a rural black couple from Mississippi, first performed in the late 60s.“True to time honored New Orleans tradition the assemblage was tardy the next morning. We had two appropriately youthful bands for the funeral– the “All Stars Jazz Band” and with serendipitous symbolism, “The Re-Birth Jazz Band.” The tuba, proudly bearing their inscription lovingly but awkwardly crafted from […] black tape, was stationed behind the coffin when Grand Marshall Ben Spillman blew three shrill blasts on his silver whistle to begin the proceedings.”
A coffin with a mirrored bottom was brought in and participants were “instructed to bring things signifying their relationship to the role of the arts in the process of social change to put in the coffin.” Rather than a tradition funeral where an inanimate body stands as a symbol of memory, the FST’s adaptation of the ritual calls on the animate body of the community to build memory by placing objects in the coffin. The body of the FST symbolically becomes collective memory for the local groups around the country. Funerals are rituals for the living; this was no exception. The FST proposal argued for a funeral as the main event of the conference stating, “The historical New Orleans Jazz or second-line funeral recognizes that it is just as important to celebrate the life of the deceased as it is to mourn his or her death.” As John O’Neal recalls in his personal recollection of the event: “There was an abundant supply of alcohol and rounding out the traditional fare for New Orleans wakes, there was music.” This music included Benedict Walter Peyton and his All Stars, Oliver “La La” Morgan, and the Rebirth Brass Band. “Before the evening was over, there was dancing and singing in the streets” John O’Neal continues to describe those in the community watching from their cars as traffic was stopped to make room for the dancing, followed by their willing participation to leave their cars and join in the festivities that continued throughout the evening.
“The familiar strain of ‘Just a Closer Walk with Thee’ waltzed across the still lagoon beside Perseverance Hall #2 [sic] over toward historic Congo Square, where slaves once met to celebrate infrequent yet hard won hours of respite. Under the prompting of Grand Marshall Spillman, the crowd began to sing the song. First one then two people found tears brimming from their eyes. With a force that was surprising the ancient ritual produced the purgative tears on many of the faces in the crowd. When the song was over and John O’Neal, co-founder and director of the Free Southern Theater, was called upon for the Eulogy, his planned remarks disolved [sic] in a briny flood. He managed in a final saying, ‘Well, I guess I’m crying.'”
“When no more objects for the box came forward, the box was closed. The Bands started ‘We Shall Overcome.’ The Pallbearers lifted the box to carry it across Louis Armstrong Park and laid it on the spot where it will ultimately be buried under a sculpture that is being designed by John Scott…The bands resumed the slow hymn as Ben Spillman led in stately grace the ‘Slowdrag’ march to the projected site for internment. Several residents of the Tremé community in which the park is located, has come to join the ritual.” With the anthem of the Civil Rights movement, this performance assumes an intentional moment of political memory reminding participants that the process of community performance that developed over decades of festivals and gatherings stemming from Civil rights activism– proving the extent to which political movements are often equally as cultural as they are political. Even the food served at the picnic after the funeral was catered by Dookey Chase Restaurant, a civil rights planning center in the Sixties and the first restaurant to serve their soul food to both white and black patrons. Anyone who doubts the power of food should listen to Leah Chase, owner, cook and legend when she says, “I feel like in this restaurant we changed the course of the world over bowls of gumbo.” You can still get a bowl there 2301 Orleans Ave.
“‘One-e-e, Two-o-o-o, One, two, three, four!’ 6 […] on the whistle and the Second Line was off to the up beat tempo of a traditional second line march. The assembly was off on a march through the neighborhood… When the parade came to the corner of Villere and Ursulines Streets the Grand Marshall Spillman paused the march to let the younger band called the all Stars deliver their challenge to the older groups called the ReBirth Jazz Band. For several minutes there ensued a classic battle of the Bands. By proving their musical dominance, at least for the moment, the younger group won the right to lead the march back to Louis Armstrong Park and to the picnic that waited for us to complete what had been a very busy week of meeting, thinking, talking, and evaluating.”
“The funeral of the Free Southern Theater as over now. We had planned it with no certain understanding that it would indeed be a funeral but that’s what it had been all who participated were moved in a profound way… The Free Southern Theater Project has been a success up to this point. Through the conference we did generate a good body of data which provides the basis for a critical evaluation of the accomplishments and short-comings of the Free Southern Theater.”
As Helen Regis notes in Second Lines, Minstrelsy, and the Contested Landscapes of New Orleans Afro-Creole Festivals, “Participation in funerals, in New Orleans as in many other cultures, is a profound way of strengthening and repairing the social fabric, which is severely weakened by poverty, joblessness, violence, class- and race-based segregation,and racism…The majority of participants in this tradition are not ‘owners’ of homes, real estate, or large public businesses. Yet, through the transformative experience of the parade, they become owners of the streets” (478). True to the ideological commitment of community-based production, the Free Southern Theater incorporated the community into its shared space of celebration.
And yet, the coffin did not contain a body reminding us that this was not a loss of life; it was a performance. The FST may have been a vital part of the New Orleans community, but it did not exist as a social club that annually plans for celebrations such as Prince of Wales, Tremé sidesteppers, etc. They adapted the ritual and used the framework, the process, of the second-line as a cultural text. Jessica Adams reminds us, “In the absence of written histories, as well as in their presences, the past travels through the bodies: the body itself is a site of documentation and remembrance” (7). By replicating the process of community-based art and the subversive nature of the second-line and funerary celebration, the FST funeral performance adapted a ritual that allowed them to reflect on their current situation and location. Participants face questions: Are past rituals of subversion still necessary in today’s socio-political climate? Have we even overcome? Can art and ritual have a role in the process of social change? The past repeats without repeating because the ritual is adapted to fit the needs of the participants in 1985, replicating previous adaptations from various other traditions to fit the needs of a community. Like a visual contrafact for those of you familiar with jazz, or a sample in a hip hop song, there exists a familiar harmonic structure or melody, but the song is different. Using the process of a jazz funeral, that celebrates life in the process of mourning death, a new message was created that communicated how death and social change was a process, an evolution that require regeneration. Tom Dent of the Free Southern Theater and author of Southern Journey noted this as early as 1970:
“The FST was a child of its time– a very special time. It should be looked at as part of the civil rights movement and
all that went with it. The disintegration of the FST followed exactly the (pattern) disintegration of the movement.
Certainly efforts by those in the FST to establish a local project deeply rooted in a section or locality with long range rather than spectacular immediate benefits, parallels the same development toward black independence and
assertion happening all over the South today… We also feel certain that the future careers of many important young black artists, as is already evidenced, will be strongly shaped but their work and exposure through the Free Southern Theater” (Tom Dent Letter to the Board, 1970 Thomas C. Dent Papers, Amistad Research Center).
The ‘death’ highlights their survival by the many groups that have gone on to replicate their process in different communities and thus in different ways. It suggests that the ‘death’ or ‘failure’ of Sixties activism should be celebrated as a moment of regeneration into cultural forms appropriate to local communities that continue to produce grassroots art. The conference provided an educational platform to current groups struggling in a harsh environment for community art and offered “primary information about the strivings, the successes and failures of the FST is available to all who try to achieve similar goals.” The FST second line connects to a past legacy that communicated via non-textual forms: orality, music, dance, performance. However it also suggests a continuity. Indeed, many of the groups influenced by the FST practice and improvise off of the process of community collaborative programs. These performance groups did not follow the path of traditional literary production or even mainstream American theater practice with an eye focused on Broadway. Rather, reached towards the cultural memory of the South- that is the global South tradition stretching from Africa to New Orleans, and Louisiana, and other areas of the Deep South that produce subversive art through orality and community. Within very classic narrative that dictates the death of the Sixites made way for the conservatism in the 1980s, the 1985 performance offers a site of resistance to political pessimism where radicalism is only dead when its cultural impact is ignored. I want to conclude with a sentiment from Roadside Theater and Appalshop director/participant Dudley Cocke that he presented in a workshop at the conference when trying to articulate the question of the role of art in social change:
“We carry to this question what we learned growing up in that time that a Free Southern Theater and the Movement inhabited so robustly: we are somebody, we must understand the who and the what of the problems that confront us, we must gain hope from struggling.”
- Adams, Jessica, Michael P. Bibler, and Cécile Accilien, eds. Just Below South: Intercultural Performance in the Caribbean and the U.S. South. Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2007.
- Dinerstein, Joel. “Thirty-Nine Sundays: Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs Take It to the Streets
- Rollin’ Wid It.” Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas. Rebecca Solnit and Rebecca Snedeker, eds. Oakland: University of California Press, 2013.
- O’Neal, John. “‘The Performance Festival’, FST Conference- Report on the FST Project /Outline, 1985” Box 28 Folder 4 in The John O’Neal Papers at the Amistad Research Center, Tulane University Libraries, New Orleans, LA.
- Regis, Helen A. “Second Lines, Minstrelsy, and the Contested Landscapes of New Orleans Afro-Creole Festivals.” Cultural Anthropology 14.4. (1999). 472-504.
- Roach, Joseph R. Cities of the Dead. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996.