“If there is sin, it lives in the distance between what you say and what you actually do.”
In 2010, I heard John O’Neal speak at the TCG Fall Forum on Governance, and like so many people whose lives were touched by him, my life was changed. He went on to talk about his co-founding of the Free Southern Theater, saying:
“In 1962, I said the non-violent movement in the South was the most important thing; but there I was heading north to New York City instead, and that had to change.”
I’d never heard a theatre artist speak with such moral clarity.
Before I go any further, John O’Neal and his family need our help. If you don’t need to hear from me to give, then please stop reading and give what you can.
But if you don’t know John O’Neal, then please let me go on.
I never met him, and there are many others who can speak far more deeply to the beautiful details of his life. But I think there is value in those of us whose lives were touched indirectly to still honor and give thanks.
The next time I was in a room with John, Heather and I were in New Orleans for the Network of Ensemble Theaters MicroFest. This was 2013, and we were at a cafe, or maybe a bar, some place where the community came out to share work. And John came into this room full of artists and the energy changed. It was like love was a kind of temperature and it could rise. You could feel the reverence in the room for him, the respect for all he’d done.
Like so many theatre artists, I didn’t know my history for a long time. I’m still learning it. I thought the successes were the celebrities. Reading about John’s work, first at Free Southern Theater and then at Junebug Production, I began to understand.
“By themselves, protest and political action cannot sufficiently alter the present situation. In the South today, there is an educational and cultural void which must be filled. For this purpose the theater is uniquely equipped.”
The Free Southern Theater Fundraising Brochure
It’s 1976. I’m focused on the business of being born. John O’Neal, meanwhile, is at the very first TCG National Conference where, according to Robert Brustein’s condescending article in the New York Times, he was “concerned with separatism, “chiding the conferees for producing ‘irrelevant’ classic,” while he was “dedicating his own work to ‘the struggle for liberation of the black nation.” Zero year-old me couldn’t do much to disrupt the white supremacy of Brustein’s article, but 43-year old me can offer her thanks for John O’Neal’s life-work of liberation, and Heather and I can offer our support. It is truly the least we can do for someone who has given us all so much.
Listen to how his co-founder Glibert Moses described the South at that time:
“It takes more than courage . . . to face the combined forces of the resistant South.” The reason that this line returns to mind is due to its sadistic implications. This frank and bleeding statement as if the federal government didn’t exist . . . as if the South were another country…Broken teeth, a prison cell, a shotgun in the back. Step right up. Hear the clanker and strut of tanks, the fattening of army ranks, the strained cries of a black face whipped with chains, as we in Mississippi prepare for war.”
John faced down that oppression with theatre, with community, with that ‘more than courage.’ Now he faces dementia, and again he needs more than courage. he needs us. Please give if you can.