“I would say the most important thing is to honestly examine and confront what’s going on in our society, and to examine it with a ruthless honesty, with ourselves, with our audiences, with our critics, with our students. What can we do, how can we make it better? And the same value applies to the art of it, I don’t see art as separate from values.” – John O’Neal, aka Junebug Jabbo Jones
All people have stories, we just have to figure out how to get them heard.
We don’t have to wait for God/ot. Godot ain’t coming and god leaves it up to us to decide when and how we speak, what we have to say, and ultimately, if anyone hears us.
A baby cries. For attention. For food. For care/cleaning. But, ultimately, for the therapy of touch, which is inherent in dealing with all of the aforementioned. After all language is a way not just of communicating but also a means of connecting, of touching both literally (via sound waves) and figuratively (via meaning and expression).
When John O’Neal, Doris Derby, and Gilbert Moses founded the Free Southern Theatre (FST), 1963, in Jackson, Mississippi, one of their thoughts was to bring theatre to those who had no theatre. Decades later, each in their own way, recognized that sharecroppers and field workers; mothers of nine tending a family and fathers drifting down some lonesome road or more likely husbanding forty acres and singing baritone on Sunday in the five-member, four-part harmony of their gospel jubilee ensemble; not to mention epic, day-long Saturday bull-jiving sessions out front of the general store for the menfolk, and weekend quilting sessions for the ladies. All of that and more of that was our theatre of sorts, our ways of making art out of the mundanities of our daily lives.
John O’Neal quickly recognized the beauty of our being how-so-ever and who-so-ever we make of our passage on and through the various pieces of earth we call home. Whether tragedies, comedies, or both, we had theatre, just had to figure out how to formalize making art out of our existence.
Born September 25, 1940 in Mound City, Illinois, John Milton O’Neal, Jr. earned a BA degree in English and Philosophy from Southern Illinois University. Shortly after graduating he joined the freedom movement and worked as a SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) field secretary in Georgia and Mississippi. In 1964 he worked with the SNCC Freedom Summer Project in Mississippi and in 1965 moved FST to New Orleans. After years of touring and performing throughout the country and abroad, FST formally closed in 1980 with a production of O’Neal’s play “Don’t Start Me To Talking Or I’ll Tell You Everything I Know: Sayings From The Life And Writings Of Junebug Jabbo Jones.” The production gave birth to both the character Junebug as well as to Junebug Productions, which O’Neal retired from in 2011. John O’Neal made his transition February 14, 2019 in New Orleans.
One of O’Neal’s most important and enduring concepts is the “story circle.” After FST productions the audience was encouraged to give comments. O’Neal noticed the disparity between various respondents, some of whom barely spoke and others of whom went on and on. Believing in what SNCC called “participatory democracy,” O’Neal developed a technique to ensure that everyone spoke and was listened to. He asked people to sit in a circle and tell a story based on their own experiences. Eventually guidelines were developed including a three-minute time limit and a story with a beginning, a middle and an end that was something a person either participated in, witnessed, or was directly told about. The story circle is a way to build community and mutual respect regardless of the speaker’s educational background and social status.
John O’Neal was not only a gifted story-teller, he was also a guide who helped everyone to recognize the importance of their own stories.