The Establishment of a Free Southern Theater

Up and Running

It is hard to pinpont the moment when a serious endeavor really achieves “lift off” as a successful project. It’s often not until years later that one can look back and recognize the significant moments which signaled that an achievement had been made. When one combs through the John O’Neal Papers at the Amistad Research Center at Tulane University, there are numerous touchstones peppered throughout his correspondence where John in turns will signal elation and then despondency to the triumphs and struggles of initiating a movement theater alongside his friends and colleagues. In formal documents which reference the theater, the public development is a more direct succession of achievements that, while perhaps feeling like a small step at the time, certainly were a milestone along the way to the impactful company they would become.

The official announcement of Free Southern Theater by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee sent on February 21, 1964 is one such milestone which might have felt like only a beginning at the time. Reviewing the many drafts of the Proposal and the Prospectus handwritten, typed and struck through, and fragments on the backs of draft letters to others, one feels a great sense of culmination to see the language which was so labored over presented officially by SNCC on their letterhead and sent across the nation to announce this exciting new arm of their organizing strategy. The introduction makes clear that SNCC has bought in to this audacious and essential new component to their work.

Fundraising and interest letter sent to ninety civil rights supporters associated with the American theater by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee on February, 21, 1964 offering to send further information materials.

Around this same time, Free Southern Theater is reevaluating their timeline for growing their theater company through new hires. Applications were already arriving from around the country to move to Jackson to be a part of this exciting new initiative in the civil rights movement. However, the core team could see that the work would need to unfold through the Summer with their current troupe to ensure they had time to adequately uncover indigenous Mississippi talent before completing their ranks with artists migrating in to join the cause. In this circa April 1964 letter sent to all applicants to the Free Southern Theater, the company demonstrates a thoughtfulness about the timing of their work.

Excerpt from a letter sent circa April 1964 to all applicants wishing to join the Free Southern Theater noting that the company is rescheduling the official opening of their season and thus will be delaying their talent search.

This push and pull of enthusiastic official announcements and the need to reschedule pivotal moments in a project’s development timeline is a tension that all community organizers and artistic producers recognize. Certainly in the throes of the preparations for Freedom Summer the stakes were high with time and energy in greater need than was available. And yet, in this same letter the Free Southern Theater maintains the confidence to detail their plans going forward, “The Free Southern Theater will stage three plays during this season in Jackson, and tour throughout Mississippi.” “[A] thirty member resident company will begin an intensive training program in all aspects of the theater for a period of twenty weeks -- from September 6, 1964 through January 23, 1965. Our producing season will be from January 24, 1965 through May 29, 1965.” 

With clarity and specificity Free Southern Theater laid out their intentions for the year ahead, much as they had worked to be definitive in the language they used to describe the principles and intentions by which they worked. Indeed, they were able to pull off their Summer season, training intensive, and 1965 Spring production season just as they projected. With less than a year of preparation between the beginnings of preparing their Prospectus and the official SNCC announcement of their company, Free Southern Theater was truly up and running! — Jackson, Mississippi