The Need for a Southern Freedom Theatre
by Doris Derby, Gilbert Moses, and John O'Neal

Originally published in Freedomways, 1st Quarter, 1964

Where did you come from
Where did you go
Where did you come from
My cotton eyed Joe...

Articles in Freedomways, beginning to our knowledge with Ossie Davis' Purlie Told Me (Spring, 1962) accept a general hypothesis: the Negro artist must "turn homeward again." In The Need For A Harlem Theater, (Summer, 1963) Jim Williams searches the highlands of white America for a "home," and finally pinpoints Harlem as the stage where the largest mass of invisible Negroes are visible.

It is clear that any discussion of the need for a Harlem theater outlines sharply the terrible necessity for a people's theater in the South.

We are three young people working in the southern movement in Mississippi. Two of us are now working on a literacy project at Tougaloo College, and the other is on the staff of the Mississippi Free Press.

We hope to establish the foundation of a permanent, non-profit community theater in Jackson, Mississippi. The official opening of the theater — entailing theatrical facilities and a dramatic program — is planned for mid-June of 1964, immediately after the close of the spring college semester.

Starting with a small group of students from Tougaloo College and other interested individuals, a kind of dramatic workshop is being formed in Jackson, Mississippi, under the direction of the three persons submitting the theater proposal.

The purpose of this group is to familiarize itself with the art of theater by actual participation in the different phases of play production: from acting to stage scenery. We hope to gain some experience in drama — technique through experimentation with different dramatic forms — one act plays, pantomime, and improvisations.

In order to develop a dramatic style which can best bring out the unique experiences of the southern Negro people and so that a versatile group able to serve the repertory nature of the proposed theater can be developed, improvisational experimentation is the emphasis of the group's activity.

Already participants in this group have been involved in a production of Purlie Victorious recently presented at Tougaloo College, and will be involved in another Tougaloo production in the spring. It is hoped that by next June, this group will be prepared to present Purlie Victorious and other plays in different communities throughout Mississippi.

In order to gain experience in front of an audience, this group will travel to communities outside Jackson between January and June.

By June, we hope to begin the theater. This will require competent theater facilities, and adequate funds to sustain the complete operation of the theater for at least the entire summer. After the summer, and during the school year, the theater program will combine presentations in Jackson with presentations in rural communities all over the south.

The administrative needs of the official theater will be:

A producer: Hopefully, the theater and its program will be sustained by a national board of sponsors, patrons, and donations. Since our admission policy will be a combination of minimal admission charges and a large distribution of free tickets, the usual source of subsistence and profit for a legitimate theater — the admission fee — is expected to play small part in the income needed to operate the theater.

A director, a choreographer, a musical director, an administrative secretary, an electrician, a set designer, a costume mistress, a public relations director, and of course, actors. Funds for operation of theater facility, acquisition of necessary materials and properties, publicity, transportation for theater of repertory nature, subsistence wages for staff.

Although the above listed positions are defined, everyone will be expected to take part in all phases of the theater program. The producers are expected to volunteer their temporary services to facilitate and augment the theater program which ranges from the highly specialized technical functions to the distribution of free tickets in rural communities.

In the beginning, we feel it necessary to develop our own drama group composed of students, and anyone outside of Mississippi, professional and amateur actors, desiring to participate in the program. This would limit the community at large to the role of spectator during the initial months. We hope, however, that the success of our program will enable expansion of the original program to include all levels of community participation not only in the dramatic art but also in the art forms associated with drama — music, dance, and painting.

Our program of plays should include all those dealing with real human problems. It is apparent that since the initiators of the program are involved in the civil rights movement, our choices shall be oriented to plays dealing with the Negro in problematic situations.

The choice of plays will then honestly embrace drama from Aeschylus to Albee, but our emphasis will be on the published and unpublished works of Negro playwrights which express the problems of our Age. The theater cannot pretend to be a solution to the problems faced by the people who suffer the oppressive system in the South. Yet, it can be the beginning of creative stimulus in a cultural desert where the patterns of reflective and creative thought have been restricted.

In cultural terms, we feel that the Negroes in Mississippi have been unable to develop naturally because society excludes them from its public consciousness which is, by necessity, their own public consciousness.

The segregated Mississippi public school system restricts the learning process, rather than nourishes it. School textbooks are controlled, discussion of controversial topics are forbidden, teachers have no choice in school programming and are under constant supervision and pressure. It is apparent that since the Negro school system was fundamentally built to keep Negroes out of white schools, competent teachers and honest education programs are, perhaps, not even its tertiary concern.

The newspapers in Mississippi are not a source of information concerning the activities of the community or of the state. The distortions of these newspapers are twofold: what is not printed — any valid information about Mississippi economics and politics; and what is printed — highly distorted and biased articles supporting the Mississippi "way of life." The one Negro weekly, other than the Free Press, is being used as a showcase for the Barnett administration to portray the Mississippi Negro as satisfied with the conditions in Mississippi. This newspaper, for a long time the only medium through which the Negro community could express itself, fails to convey true information to the Negro community, and is supported by the Barnett regime.

The cultural institutions in Jackson, in general, are engaged in a tense struggle for which there exists no immediate solution. Working within a controlled situation, they attempt solutions to problems within the Negro community, but are unable to affect the external cause of the problems — deprivation caused by the oppressive caste system.

It is necessary that an education program coincide with and augment the program of the freedom movement. A theater can be unique not only as a means of education, but also can create the opportunity for the human dimension that the present caste system is calculated to deny — the development of human dignity. Theater demonstrates that reality can be transformed, and that within this transformation the Negro plays the leading role.

If the present cry is "turn homeward," we ask artists, dancers, actors, directors, and playwrights, and anyone who would think to combine theater with social awareness, to come to Jackson, Mississippi, to help release the laughter over this dusty, tear-drenched clay; to help shape the space around the expectations of America.

Copyright © Doris Derby, Gilbert Moses, and John O'Neal, 1964.

Copyright ©
(Labor donated)