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Fri, 09.27.1963

The Free Southern Theater is Formed

FST (program)

*The Free Southern Theater (FST) is celebrated on this date in 1963.

FST was a community theater group founded in 1963 at Tougaloo College by Gilbert MosesDenise Nicholas, Doris Derby, and John O'Neal.  In White America, their first production toured 16 towns and cities ranging in size from Mileston in Holmes County, Mississippi, to New Orleans. Gilbert Moses recalled: "The Holmes County people came in from the farms to see us. We had to play in the afternoon because they wanted to get home by dark." 

The Free Southern Theater was a part of the emerging Black Theatre Movement and closely allied with the American Civil Rights movement. O'Neal and Derby were also directors of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). They presented plays by Langston HughesJohn O. KillensJames Baldwin, and Ossie Davis and provided a space for their members to write their plays. The founders sought to introduce free theater to the South, both as a voice for social protest and emphasizing positive aspects of African American culture. O'Neal, Derby, and Moses outlined the troupe's philosophy in a founding document. For professional help in theater management, the Free Southern Theater began working with Professor Richard Schechner, then at Tulane University, who joined as one of its producing directors.

They toured rural Louisiana and Mississippi, presenting plays such as Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot. Initially consisting of black and white actors, the company gradually became exclusively African American and presented only plays by black playwrights such as the controversial LeRoi Jones (later known as Amiri Baraka). From the first, the company was plagued by artistic and managerial disagreements, and, with free admission as a primary objective, money was always in short supply. Following their January 1965 tour, the company did fundraising performances in New York. Under financial duress and hoping to draw on a larger middle-class black population, the troupe moved to New Orleans in 1965, where they purchased an office space and gathered a board of directors.

The company went from eight members to twenty-three. In 1966 Moses, Schechner, and O'Neal left, and the company was taken over by African American poet and writer Thomas Dent assisted by Val Ferdinand (later known as Kalamu ya Salaam). The company launched workshops for actors and introduced plays written by its members. They adapted the play In White America by Martin Duberman to depict the murders of Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) field workers James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman, killed in Philadelphia, Mississippi, by the Ku Klux Klan. They also performed Waiting for Godot in whiteface and Ossie Davis's "Purlie Victorious."

In addition to John O'Neal and Gilbert Moses, well-known actors who appeared in FST productions included Roscoe Orman. The company manager was Mary Lovelace, later Chair of the Art Department at U.C. Berkeley. Despite grants from the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations and support from celebrities including Harry Belafonte, Arthur Ashe, Bill Cosby, and Julian Bond, The Free Southern Theater gradually lost its creative momentum and financial support.

In 1980, The Free Southern Theater closed. However, the 1985 production A Funeral for the Free Southern Theater: A Valediction Without Mourning honored the company "featuring a jazz funeral and a three-day art conference for social change." O'Neal's theater company Junebug Productions strives to carry on the legacy of the Free Southern Theater.

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