A Farewell Without Mourning: A Jazz Funeral For Free Southern Theater

funeral marshal beginning funeral

Jackson Hill

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 14 No. 3/4, "Changing Scenes: Theater in the South." Find more from that issue here.

Last November veteran civil rights activists conducted a traditional New Orleans jazz funeral for Free Southern Theater (FST), an innovative, mainly black company born in 1963.

FST had been the brainchild of three civil rights movement activists, John O'Neal, Doris Derby, and Gilbert Moses. The theater's founders envisioned it as a different method of fostering social change which they hoped would augment the civil rights movement. Conceived as a cultural and political tool, the theater's aim was to involve artists and audiences in a mutual struggle against racism in the South.

For its last few years, John O'Neal had carried on FST mainly alone. By 1980, he realized that FST had died. Over the next few years he looked for funding to organize a conference to mark the end of that company. Loyola University of New Orleans sponsored the conference, "The Role of Art in the Process of Social Change," held in November. O'Neal planned the funeral to coincide with it.

He explained why FST had failed: "Many of the social and political conditions have changed in American society since 1963. These changes did not invalidate the programs and purposes of the Free Southern Theater, but they served to complicate and make it more difficult to implement such programs and to realize those purposes. This is due primarily to the fact that the broad-based social movement that gave rise to the Free Southern Theater now lies fallow."

He chose a jazz funeral because he believes in the importance of rituals. "We have to do rituals for the children and for the grandchildren and for the great-grandchildren. Those are the ones the rituals are designed centrally to impress.

''After the FST funeral it occurred to me that I was glad my children had come. I don't think my son will ever forget that image of me crying. I think that's probably the only time he has ever seen me cry. It surprised me that I did it."

A History of Free Southern Theater


• Doris Derby, John O'Neal, and Gilbert Moses meet in the winter on the campus of Tougaloo College in Tougaloo, Mississippi to form Free Southern Theater.


• Richard Schechner, then professor of drama at Tulane University in New Orleans, takes an interest in the idea of a theater after receiving a copy of FST's prospectus.

• Pilot plans focus on a 10-week session in Jackson, Mississippi, in the summer. Five plays are scheduled: Purlie Victorious, Do You Want to Be Free, Lower Than the Angels, Day of Absence, and Great Gettin' up Mornin'.

• FST's receives its first contribution — from Langston Hughes.

• Kick-off party raises around $10,000 with a gathering which includes Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Robert Ryan, Diana Sands, Barbara Streisand, and others.

In White America opens in Jackson with an integrated cast drawn from the Mississippi Summer Project.

• FST goes on its first summer tour, a 21-town tour of Mississippi, Louisiana, and Tennessee.

• Auditions for a company of 12 players are planned in New York for early September. Headquarters for the new theater will be in New Orleans and Jackson.

Purlie Victorious and Waiting for Godot open.

• FST's second tour in the winter covers Mississippi, Tennessee, and Georgia

• FST company members are evicted from apartments for participating in a mixed-race group; several are arrested for vagrancy; rehearsal space is hard to find; local newspapers will not review shows.


• FST introduces improvised performances which enlist persons from the audience to assume roles as themselves — civil rights workers, police, judges.

• Hurricane Betsy destroys the New Orleans headquarters.

FST operations suspended when funds run low in October. Second half of the Deep South tour cancelled.


• Stage production of Gilo Moses' Roots.

• Permanent headquarters established in New Orleans.

• Three-year grant of $62,500 awarded to FST by a Rockefeller family foundation.

• Stage productions of I Speak of Africa and Does Man Help Man.


• Black Arts South performing poets started; small scale touring began in addition to local workshops.


• "Soul Food at the Waldorf" raises $84,000 for FST.

Slave Ship by Leroi Jones is produced.

• Big split over artistic direction and policy occurs in organization.


• New direction is taken: actors no longer imported; training program set up to teach and develop local people; community theater program strengthened; writing workshop established; administrative, teaching, and technical staff strengthened.


• FST reopens after five-month break with plans for 1971-72 season. Plans include a permanent touring troupe, drama workshops, and training programs.

• Black music workshop is formed under the direction of Ellis Marsalis.


• FST receives $20,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts and $15,000 from the Rockefeller Foundation.

• Productions include Terraced Apartment and One Last Hook by Steve Carter, A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansbury and Hurricane Season by John O'Neal.


• Productions include Black Experience and We Are the Suns by Chakula Cha Jua and Where is the Blood of Your Fathers? by O'Neal.


• Stage productions include When the Opportunity Scratches, Itch it! and Going Against the Tide by O'Neal.

• Video magazine, Nation Time, starts on New Orleans' Channel 12.


• FST begins a radio program on WNNR in New Orleans.

• Financial problems jeopardize program and staff continuity.


• FST becomes involved in the Gary Tyler Defense Committee.

• FST attends The New Theater Festival in Baltimore.


Where is the Blood of Your Fathers? is restaged.


Candle in the Wind, by Ted Ward, is produced.


• Household repair business fails. Yard work concession is set up to subsidize theater work.


Don't Start Me to Talking or I'll Tell Everything I Know: Sayings from the Life and Writings of Junebug Jabbo Jones, by O'Neal with Ron Castine and Glenda Lindsay, is produced.

• FST dies.