Free Southern Theater
In his infrequently referenced African American Literature in the Twentieth Century: The Achievement of Intimacy (1984), Michael G. Cooke used “intimacy” to denote “a full and unforced communication with the given, the available, and the conceivable in human experience in a particular time and setting”(x). Twenty-first century usage corrupts “intimacy” with pseudo-erotic connotations. Cooke’s specialized definition of “intimacy” is lost; the extension of “intimacy” to mean “communion” adds complexity to Cooke’s definition. Intimacy as communion aptly describes a few things that occurred during the “Talkin’ Revolution: FST at 50” convening, October 17-20, 2013, at Tulane University and Ashé Cultural Arts Center. People communed.
One poignant moment of communion that occurred between the two living Free Southern Theater founders, Doris Derby and John O’Neal, involved the late Gilbert Moses, the third founder. O’Neal had the courage to make a public, confessional apology to Derby for the sexism that was commonplace fifty years ago. He and Moses had been most unfair to Derby in 1963-64 in FST’s founding months. Although the idea for using drama as an instrument in civil rights struggles was Derby’s brainchild, Moses and O’Neal thought she should subordinate her ideas and walk behind what they thought. Derby tacitly accepted O’Neal’s apology as she spoke eloquently about how the idea for FST emerged from her family’s notions about action for social justice and her growing up in New York with a special interest in the arts. Genuine intimacy of this kind necessitates our rethinking the motives of contemporary critics who gleefully magnify the confrontational anger between women and men in social struggles and in literature.
Free Southern Theater by Free Southern Theater (BobbsMerrill, 1969) is a partial documentary history of FST’s early years, but it demands such supplements as “The Legacy of the Free Southern Theater in New Orleans,” interviews with Karen-Kaia Livers and Chakula Cha Jua, which is available in the online magazine ChickenBones – http://www.nathanielturner.com/legacy/freesoutherntheater.htm and “After the Free Southern Theater: A Dialog,” which Tom Dent and I wrote for The Drama Review 31.3 (1987): 120-125. But more important is the spotlight FST veterans –Quo Vadis Gex Breaux, Frozine Thomas, Roscoe Orman, Kalamu ya Salaam, Chakula Cha Jua, and Felipe Smith –used to focus on the history of Free Southern Theater from 1963 to 1985. Stephanie McKee, Director of Junebug Productions (visit Junebugproductions.Org ), has planned for eventual broadcasting of the videotaped documentation of “Talkin’ Revolution.” Future scholarship on FST requires working in the Free Southern Theater Collection, the Tom Dent Papers and the John O’Neal Papers at Amistad Research Center, Tulane University.
Kalamu ya Salaam, a FST alum and Tom Dent’s protégé, provided crucial information about FST’s role in the Black Arts Movement in his remarks about Dent’s service (1965-1968) as FST associate director during O’Neal’s two year absence in New York and as director of the FST Writers’ Workshop (1968-1972). FST emerged from the ideology associated with SNCC (Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee), but Dent inserted the radical ideology associated with New York’s Umbra Workshop into debates regarding FST’s status as integrationist theater. Under Dent’s leadership, FST became a black community theater. It may be possible to verify that FST pre-dates Amiri Baraka’s Black Arts Repertory Theater (BART) as an urban theater catalyst for Black Arts Movement ideologies. Kalamu ya Salaam’s emphatic argument about FST’s primacy requires intimate investigation and revisiting of tentative conclusions in James E. Smethurst’s The Black Arts Movement: Literary Nationalism in the 1960s and 1970s ( University of North Carolina Press, 2005). “Stories,” as Minrose Gwin suggested in Remembering Medgar Evers, “translate an ethics of collective social struggle based in memory”(172). Salaam’s witnessing transmits lore to ears willing to listen in the twenty-first century. It inspires my need to ask:
WHY WAS I ON A PANEL WITH DORIS DERBY, JOHN O’NEAL AND ROSCOE ORMAN?
First, to say we ought to attempt to locate the origins, growth, decline and death of Free Southern Theater with the context of the revolution that was the long struggle for civil rights that began in the 18th century and went into hibernation in the 1980s. Like the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Haitian Revolution, and the Cuban Revolution, the long struggle culminated in legalistic changes of the social contract under which people work and coexist. Given that aspects of what Charles W. Mills calls the racial contract were not and may never be eradicated in the United States of America, the struggle for civil and human rights does not have historical closure. It is continuing. FST was a catalyst not a revolution. It intensified the possibility that a blending of politics and art might be effective in achieving certain ends of revolution, a limited number of ends. I am adamant about clarity of defining so emotional a word as “revolution.”
Second, to shoot bullet-points of memory, the future memory of a twenty-year old senior mathematics major at Tougaloo College in 1963-64. When I run out of ammo, read The Free Southern Theater by the Free Southern Theater . That book is full of ammunition.
- Bill Hutchinson, Tougaloo’s speech teacher and theater director, asked me to talk with Gilbert Moses, Doris Derby and John O’Neal about the feasibility of a theater that could promote critical thinking about dreadful conditions in segregated Mississippi and the South. At our meetings I reviewed the initial draft proposals with the FST founders. Drama as a weapon was a new idea for me. Wasn’t the bloody drama of risky sacrifices made by local people and SNCC workers, of overcoming the paralysis of profound fear, the emotional cost of empathy --was this not drama enough? Obviously not. My admiration for Doris’s bravery and intelligence, for John’s philosophical pronouncements, and for Gilbert’s boldness convinced me Tougaloo College should support the enterprise as much as it could. The College with its traditions of supporting forms of resistance to gross injustice was the right space for developing and implementing theater as a form of education about social evils, state-sponsored terrorism, and our entitlement to Constitutional rights. Cultivating non-academic audiences was a capital idea.
- What Frances Williams (1905-1995), a seasoned actress who had been an activist since the 1930s, said in conversations during her residency at Tougaloo opened our eyes about how drama could expose the fundamental theatricality of social and political action. Those talks strengthen my conviction about the rightness of having FST.
- I was a critical witness at the creation. FST’s work from 1963 to 1985 was proof that diverse roles and strategies are meaningful in life and death situations which are integral parts of change.
- Fifty years later we can learn ice-cold lessons about the present state and imagined future of African American theater and writing. (A) Although some black writing creates amnesia, much of it still has cantankerous vitality. (B) Politically conscious African American theater is pathetic. It is so Americanized and homogenized as to have lost 95% of its potential to improve consciousness among large numbers of people. It is ill-equipped to deal with our lust for infotainment, our being enthralled and enslaved by endlessly new visual technologies. I am not “hating” on any single playwright or theater group or spectacle (performance effort). I am simply convinced one FST product, Tom Dent’s Ritual Murder, remains unmatched for aesthetic economy and psychological depth in dealing with the major problem in 21st century society ---namely, cultivated self-hatred and total negation of the sanctity of human life. A vital African American /Black theater would address the genocidal implications of nihilism and self-hatred.
In the early planning of FST, Gilbert Moses thought the ideal was to evolve forms of drama to deal with political and moral dilemmas ---to forge “a new idiom, a new genre, a theatrical form and style as unique as blues, jazz, and gospel. Black music still succeeds in preserving the changing complexities of anchored Blackness and eternal problems. Measured against FST ideals, contemporary African American theatre fails in general to do. It is patriotic and American, a dream deferred.
Jerry W. Ward, Jr. October 21, 2013