Denise Nicholas

Free Southern Theater, 1964-66, Mississippi and Louisiana
Current Residence: Los Angeles, CA

The Free Southern Theater was founded by Gilbert Moses and John O'Neal and set out to engage the southern, mostly rural, nearly 100% black audience in a dialogue with itself and with the world. The conversation and the changes came like blazing winds off the desert, full of fury, pushed by history, aching for freedom.

We performed in churches, in cotton fields, in community centers with no roofs; we were a band of theatrical gypsies traveling the dangerous and unlit roads of Mississippi and Louisiana. We laughed and cried with the people of those little towns from Mound Bayou to Gulfport and Jonesboro to New Orleans. We spoke a different language but in the end, we were of the same heart. Change was coming and we leaned into the headwinds. So many of our audience members hadn't seen a live theatrical performance before. There was awe, consternation, laughter, sadness, pride and sometimes solemnity. We were harassed, arrested, followed, had bombs thrown at stages while we performed. We slept in the homes of local people who protected us, fed us and kept us going. We did our best to illuminate through drama and comedy the stream of history that we swam in, the possibilities and the humiliations, the fears and the ironies. When we performed Ossie Davis's play, "Purlie Victorious", the character Gitlow ran onstage from a real cotton field with cotton bolls flying every which way. It was hilarious. In Indianola, 25 members of the White Citizens Council came to see our performance of "In White America." When questioned about their reason for attending our performance, they responded that they came to see if we were in fact "communist inspired." It was ludicrous and frightening.

I carried those experiences with me through all the days of my career as an actress in New York and then in Hollywood. My work in television and film was anchored, balanced by my time in the civil rights movement. I knew when I left the south that some day I would write a book inspired by that time. And many many years later, I did. After going back to school to study creative writing, I wrote Freshwater Road. During the writing process, long-buried memories of my time in Mississippi and Louisiana flooded back into my mind as if they'd been waiting outside the door for me to invite them in. It is a coming of age story of a young woman who goes to Mississippi in June 1964. It is my literary version of an oral history, as factual, as truthful as I could be, as imagined as the weight of those times would allow.


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