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O'Neal, John (1940-) | Amistad Research Center

Name: O'Neal, John (1940-)

Historical Note:

Actor, director, performer, writer, community and civil rights activist, and pioneer of African American theater John M. O'Neal, Jr. co-founded the Free Southern Theater in 1963 as the cultural and educational arm of the southern Civil Rights Movement. His work as playwright and social activist demonstrates how his philosophy of art and politics are complementary, not opposing terms. O'Neal's artistic style and vision has afforded him the opportunity to perform widely for audiences throughout North America and Europe.

John M. O'Neal, Jr. was born on September 25, 1940, in Mound City, Illinois, and earned a BA degree in English and Philosophy from Southern Illinois University in 1962, where he also studied playwriting.  Upon graduation, and with his involvement with the southern Civil Rights Movement, O'Neal became a Field Secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Georgia and Mississippi.  O'Neal also served as the Committee Chairman and Coordinator for the Freedom School Program of the Council of Federated Organizations' Freedom Summer in Mississippi project in 1964.

After extensive contributions to SNCC, the Council of Racial Equality (CORE), and other civil rights organizations, and as a result of his work as a socially active student at Southern Illinois University, O'Neal helped established the Free Southern Theater (FST) in 1963.  FST began as the Tougaloo Drama Workshop, co-founded by O'Neal, Doris Derby, and Gilbert Moses at Tougaloo College, Mississippi, in October of 1963.  For a number of practical reasons, the theater relocated from Mississippi and established its headquarters in New Orleans in 1965. The FST was organized as an integrated touring repertory company with a community engagement program, as well as a training workshop in Black theater. The main purpose of FST was "to use theater as an instrument to stimulate the development of critical and reflective thought among Black people in the South," and to support the efforts of those involved in the Civil Rights Movement.

FST played a pivotal role for African Americans and oppressed people in the south by using theater as a tool of social justice. The touring repertory company inspired its cast members to become activists, as well as artists.  Its first donation was from poet Langston Hughes in the form of a check for the amount of $12.  The theaters' first production, Inherit the Wind, began in the summer of 1964 and re-enacted the 1925 court battle in Dayton, Tennessee, between lawyers Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan, arguing the topic of teaching evolution in state-funded schools.  As an actor, O'Neal played Clarence Darrow's character while Gilbert Moses directed the play.  In White America, FST's second production eventually became a historical text used in the Freedom Schools.

In 1980, FST concluded and O'Neal organized Junebug Productions, Inc. that same year to continue the work of FST in the post-Civil Rights Movement era. Junebug's major programs include local community-based art programs along with local presentations of its repertoire; national touring and educational residencies; and the ColorLine Project, a long-term community-based story collecting project about the Civil Rights Movement and current racial issues around the country. Serving as the organization's Artistic Director until his retirement in 2011, O'Neal's Junebug Productions operates as an arts organization and touring theater company based in New Orleans, Louisiana. Junebug productions have presented national theater programs and currently produce projects and community cultural development programs.

The Junebug repertory began with the play, Don't Start Me to Talking or I'll Tell Everything I Know: Sayings from the Life and Writings of Junebug Jabbo Jones. This piece was written and performed by O'Neal in 1980 with Ron Castine and Glenda Lindsay, and with the direction of Curtis L. King.  The play was developed further with Steven Kent and has been performed locally and internationally.  In 1985, poet and playwright Barbara Watkins of Seven Stages Theater of Atlanta, Georgia, and the Wisdom Bridge Theater of Chicago joined O'Neal and Kent to create the second development of Junebug repertory, You Can't Judge of Book by Looking at the Cover: Sayings From the Life and Writings of Junebug Jabbo Jones, Volume II.  Following this production was the third volume written in 1987, called Ain't No Use in Goin Home, Jodies's Got Your Gal and Gone.  This musical drama was performed by O'Neal and Michael Keck, who also wrote the music for the play.

In addition, O'Neal served variously as playwright, stage director, and actor.  As a playwright, O'Neal has written Hurricane Season, Where is the Blood of Your Fathers, and the comedy When the Opportunity Scratches, Itch It.  He produced a book and lyrics for a musical comedy, Preacher Man! Preacher Man!, and for Jerusalem Gallows Dream.  As a director, O'Neal has written and collaborated on several projects including, If I Live to See Next Fall, written and directed in collaboration with the Play Group of Knoxville, Tennessee, and songwriter/organizer Si Kahn.  O'Neal also collaborated with John Holden and members from the San Francisco Mime Troupe to write The Mozamgola Caper.

The Southern Illinois University Theater Department hired O'Neal as a guest lecturer in the Spring of 1979.  During his stint, O'Neal conducted workshops and directed a civil rights play written by James Baldwin entitled, Blues for Mr. Charlie.  In addition, O'Neal was a visiting professor in theater at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, from 1989-1992, where he taught playwriting.  O'Neal served as a field program director and consultant for the Committee for Racial Justice of the United Church of Christ and a Southern Regional Consultant for the Episcopal Church General Convention Special Program.

As an educator, O'Neal lectured and conducted two workshops at Hamilton College, in Clinton, New York, as the Kirkland Project artist-in-residence in March 2001. During his stint at Hamilton College, O'Neal produced the ColorLine Project, a story collecting and performance event about the Civil Rights Movement.  His intent for the project was to aid the public to stimulate dialogue about the theme and the importance of personal story.

O'Neal's most recent play, Trying to Find My Way Back Home, was held at the Ashe' Cultural Arts Center from June 2-5, 2011, in New Orleans, Louisiana. Another recent project was O'Neal's People Say Project: Conversations on Culture & Money.  This project is a local social conscious theatrical movement to explore New Orleans economic hardships and conjoins two generations of local New Orleans creative minds: Andrew Vaught, cofounder of Cripple Creek Theatre Company, and John M. O'Neal.  Their collaboration is the play Marisol.

O'Neal received many fellowships and awards and is a member of several theater associations. He received the Louisiana Artist's Fellowship in Theater and grants from the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations.  O'Neal was awarded a major fellowship for playwriting from the Rockefeller Foundation in 1988; a NEA Playwriting Fellowship in 1990 for his dramatization about slave insurrectionist Nat Turner; and is featured in Three Who Dared, written by Tom Cohen.  O'Neal was former Chairman of Alternate ROOTS (Regional Organization of Theaters South), a member of the Actor's Equity Association, the Dramatist Guild, and a founding member of American Festival Project, a national coalition of performing arts organizations.

Throughout his career, O’Neal published essays and plays in numerous books, magazines, and journals.  His works have been published in Southern Exposure, The Black Scholar, Tulane Drama Review, Black World, Plays from the Southern Theater, Yale Theatre, and The Black Aesthetic.  His poetry has been published in New Black Poetry.

John M. O'Neal, Jr. currently resides in New Orleans.



John O’Neal papers, Amistad Research Center, New Orleans, Louisiana.

Junebug Productions: http://junebugproductions.org/#/mission-history/4528280119

The Kirkland Project: http://academics.hamilton.edu/organizations/kirkland/oneal.html

The People Say Project: http://www.thepeoplesayproject.org/john-oneals-junebug-productions/

Note Author: Felicia D. Render

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