The Free Southern Theater: An Evaluation
by Tom Dent (FST Manager)

Originally published in Freedomways, 1st Quarter, 1966.

See also Free Southern Theater

Imagine that you are a Negro high school student in Bogalusa, Louisiana. It is late August, a hot, muggy Wednesday night. You are about to watch a play. The play will be performed by the Free Southern Theater, but not tonight from a written script.

The play tonight is about Bogalusa itself. The cast includes not only the members of the FST but some of your classmates, many of whom have participated in protest marches during the summer.

A huge crowd has gathered at the Union Hall despite the heat. It is as if the entire Negro community has come, plus the several CORE workers who have been in town, and others from neighboring towns.

From where you are standing you can see there are as many people outside as inside, even the windows are crowded with eager faces. Outside across the dirt road, the police chief leans against his automobile talking with several of his deputies. The chief is not sure what a play is, but he is present in case any 'trouble' develops. Anyway, amidst the excitement no one pays attention to the police. The Deacons for Defense of Equality and Justice are also present. They had escorted the Free Southern Theater without incident from McComb, Mississippi Monday and will provide a protective caravan of cars tomorrow morning when the company leaves for New Orleans.

After a brief introduction by Gilbert Moses who explains this will be an improvised play, the scenes begin. The play is about the demonstrations in Bogalusa that summer, about the violence in Bogalusa and the inflexibility of the Mayor, his City Council and the police in the face of that violence, and about the determination of the Negro citizens to fight back, to fight for their rights, and to take action to insure their safety while protesting for their rights.

The audience responds to the subtleties, humor, truth of every situation as it develops on the makeshift stage. And you too respond though you are not sure this is a great play or that plays should be about something like this. The plays by the Central High School drama club in Bogalusa are certainly not like this. But nevertheless this play is about your life, your problems, what you have been through — and you have heard truths stated tonight which have only been whispered in Bogalusa. And you wished the police chief (who is probably outside wondering what all the shouting, laughter, excitement is about) , the Mayor, every white person in Bogalusa could be in the Union Hall tonight to see themselves portrayed as they really are.

* * *

That such a play did happen in Bogalusa last August to just such a responsive audience is the truest proof of the vitality of the Free Southern Theater.

Several observations can be made from the Bogalusa experience, and the theater's experience after three seasons and two years of existence.

The Free Southern Theater has been able to communicate because, first of all, it is theater. Theater has the potential to reach people on several levels: the dramatic, the literary, the visual; through dance, music, costume, ritual ... as many forms as the creator can make effective. This has been especially true for FST on tours of small towns like Bogalusa where live theater is new. Last summer FST performed In White America in every town. In White America is a historically informative, but "speechy" play. Yet audiences could relate to actions, to music, to dialect, to the tone of a scene.

Here is a significant breakthrough toward cultural development of untouched, yet amazingly sophisticated and responsive audiences. For theater, because it is such a multi-faceted art, can open the way for other arts to reach these same audiences.

The key to this breakthrough is FST's insistence on not charging admission. Free theater has meant that FST can appear before all classes within the Negro community, all age groups, and those whites who wish to come. Free theater has meant that drama is suddenly more real than "culture," for which Mrs. Beulah Jones must wear her best dress, and from which Mrs. Hattie Jones who is a domestic must stay away because she is not "cultured." Free theater means that the kids who may not be able to pay can come. And the kids are the audience and creators of the future.

One valuable function which has developed from FST performances is the addition of clarity to social and cultural issues. The theater received its greatest response last summer from Movement towns like Jackson, Jonesboro and Bogalusa. Art can make possible reflection, evaluation and appreciation of group experience. Certainly plays like In White America, Brecht's The Rifles of Senora Carrar (a Spanish Civil War play also performed last summer) and the immediate improvisational plays (attempted in Jonesboro, developed in Bogalusa) can throw reflective light on the Movement, help the participants discover what the Movement means or what it should mean. There are other plays which have the same power. There are plays which will come out of our current experience and commitment. An important feature is the discussion of the play between audience and actors after each performance. Sometimes the discussions have been better than the play.

Important, also, is the obvious educational value of performances before audiences which have not associated themselves with the Movement. Or audiences that know nothing of Negro history. At a Catholic school in New Orleans an audience of primarily "Creole" Negroes was exposed to a history of black people in America absolutely foreign to their experience. Several of the teenagers stayed after this performance for the discussion. These youths were completely ignorant of W. E. B. du Bois, Father Divine — even Booker T. We discussed du Bois' philosophy of education for Negro youth. The source of du Bois' conflict with Washington. Who was Father Divine? Marcus Garvey?

All this has fantastic potential for the Negro writer. The Negro writer today as well as yesterday — from Dunbar to LeRoi Jones — writes for a primarily white audience. To say that the Negro writer writes for a white audience does not mean he always writes to appease that audience. On the contrary. Today one might say instead that the Negro writer because he lacks a substantial readership among his own people may be forced into bitterness. Forced, because when he writes for a society patterned after and dependent upon the very denial of his humanity it is only natural that he be bitter.

Contrast this increasingly self-defeating situation with that of the Negro jazz musician. The Negro jazz musician creates a music for an audience of and out of the travail, joy, hope of his own people. No matter how inventive his technical development or how suffused in his own vision, he can relate back to something real in people who share his experience and situation. And no matter how commercial he becomes if he really has something to say he relates to his own audience first. This is why Negro jazz musicians dominate American music, and have for some time. Art is not an ivory tower exercise but always, basically, an act of communication. And a subtle, sophisticated, complex creation becomes possible if the creator is assured of the possibility of communication. The first step (for the Negro writer) out of this trap, is the development of a responsive audience of his own people.

The irony here is that the Free Southern Theater has received virtually no support from the Negro middle class, financially or otherwise. The support has come from Negroes definitely not middle class, white northern liberals, theater people in northern cities, black and white, and from a handful of people, mostly white, in New Orleans who have involved themselves with the theater since it moved here a year ago.

Last summer an attempt was made to obtain support from Negroes in New Orleans who could contribute substantially to FST. A theater-party was given by a Negro lady to which the well-to-do and Negro "leaders" were invited. The company performed the second act of In White America. The party was a tremendous success; the response to critical need for funds extremely disappointing.

This is tragic. The Negro middle class — the doctor, the lawyer, the teacher, often completely accepts the values of the white middle class. At the lawn party I felt as if these people were watching the play with the same sort of unpleasant reaction one finds when the skeleton is discovered in the closet: "Oh," one of these ladies might have said, "and we had just forgotten about all that. Why do we have to watch a play about lynching, peonage, discrimination? We are pleasant enough in our new car, our recently carpeted living room, our nightly color TV." My Fair Lady would have been much, much more satisfying.

Such a flight from reality is tragic enough. But even more tragic is a situation where (Duke) Ellington, (Richard) Wright, (Charlie) Parker, Games) Baldwin, (Theolonius) Monk are not acceptable in the Negro middle class home until the white cultural establishment has decreed them acceptable. Then it is okay to buy Parker's records or Baldwin's books, and only then. The theater has received more in pennies from people who could not afford to give a dollar at performances than it has in mailed contributions from Negroes who could afford to give hundreds.

Founders John O'Neal and Gilbert Moses and board chairman Richard Schechner began their third season last Spring with hopes that benefits in New York would allow them to carry out a six-state four-month tour. A staff of twenty was hired, far more than the previous company of eight, at a top salary of $35 per week.

Few of the benefits materialized. The staff lived under considerable hardship, for rarely could the company meet the weekly wages. Police harassment in New Orleans and particularly on the first leg of the tour through Mississippi and Louisiana in August did not help matters. Finally O'Neal, acting as administrator, had to abandon the tour in September because of lack of funds.

Only a few members of the company (Moses, Denise Nicholas, Murray Levy, Roscoe Orman and Victor Lewis) are now in New Orleans. O'Neal is temporarily out of the picture — he must serve two years of military service in New York.

Financial problems have aggravated other problems within FST. The theater badly needs an administrator. Someone who is not primarily an artist, but who can understand what FST is all about and why it must be.

Those members of the company still in New Orleans are determined that the theater continue to exist. Workshops are planned for teenagers in a Negro community in New Orleans. The surviving members of the company will continue to sharpen their skills through workshops among themselves. Gil Moses and Murray Levy may take on the responsibilities of artistic director. Moses, who has recently completed two new plays, will continue to write. It was his talent that shaped Bogalusa '65. The continuity of this work and the finalization of the theater's federal tax exemption at the end of the year provide concrete assurance that the Free Southern Theater will begin a new season next summer.

Copyright © Tom Dent, 1966.

Copyright © 2011
(Labor donated)