John O’Neal, 78, who co-founded a troupe that brought theater to black audiences in the South during the civil rights era, and who encouraged people to tell their own stories, as well as listen to his, died Feb. 14 of vascular disease at his home in New Orleans.
O’Neal was still in his early 20s in 1963 when he, Doris Derby and Gilbert Moses founded the Free Southern Theater, which presented free productions throughout the South. The troupe often performed in small towns to largely black audiences.
Some of its productions emphasized black themes and characters; in one of the troupe’s first shows, Ossie Davis’ “Purlie Victorious,” about a black preacher, O’Neal played the title character. But the company also performed works like “Waiting for Godot.”
The idea, O’Neal explained in 1964, wasn’t merely to expose black audiences to theater; it was also to get them thinking about their own lives.
“We want to strengthen communication among Southern blacks and to assert that self-knowledge and creativity are the foundations of human dignity,” he said. “In the South, it has been very hard for a Negro to look at and see anything but a distorted view of himself.”
To that end, he encouraged audience discussion after the shows, a practice he refined over the years. These story circles, as he called them, became a trademark technique of his — both during the life of the Free Southern Theater, which disbanded in 1980, and with Junebug Productions, the successor arts organization he founded. And O’Neal would draw inspiration from those story circles. As he put it, “You find the best stuff when you’re not looking for it.”
John Milton O’Neal Jr. was born on Sept. 25, 1940, in Mound City, Ill. In 1962, he received a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and English at Southern Illinois University.
After his graduation his interest in civil rights took him to the South, where he became an organizer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Georgia and Mississippi. He, Moses and Derby started the Free Southern Theater in Jackson, Miss., after hatching the idea over dinner.
Their original base of operation was Tougaloo College near Jackson, though the troupe soon moved to New Orleans. It started on a shoestring. He liked to collaborate with other writers and theater groups to create multicultural works, as he did on “Promise of a Love Song,” which interwove three love stories from different cultures.
He was perhaps best known for a character he created and performed in a series of one-man plays: Junebug Jabbo Jones, a mythical sort of griot who, speaking in southwestern Mississippi dialect, told homespun stories full of humor and universal wisdom. He introduced the character in 1980 in “Don’t Start Me Talkin’ or I’ll Tell Everything I Know: Sayings From the Life and Writings of Junebug Jabbo Jones,” and he performed the Junebug plays all over the country.
New York Times