“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, Founder

John O’Neal, Founder of Junebug Productions

John O’Neal, Founder of Junebug Productions

JUNEBUG PRODUCTIONS is the organizational successor to the Free Southern Theater (FST). In 1963, Field Secretaries John O’Neal and Doris Derby along with student leader Gilbert Moses co-founded FST to be a cultural wing of SNCC. FST went on to become a major influence in the Black Arts Movement. In 1965 FST moved its base from Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi to New Orleans. The theater’s first professional tour was of Freedom School Project sites. It continued to use arts to support the Civil Rights Movement through a community engagement program and training opportunities for local people interested in writing, performing and producing theater as well as touring.

In 1980 FST produced DON’T START ME TO TALKING OR I’LL TELL EVERYTHING I KNOW, the first solo piece written and performed by John O’Neal featuring Junebug Jabbo Jones, a character created by SNCC members to represent and symbolize the wit and wisdom of common folk. This was the last production of the FST and the first production of Junebug Productions. In 1985 the “The Funeral of the Free Southern Theater, a Valediction without Mourning” celebrated the work of FST.

Over the years Junebug Productions has toured with three volumes of solo pieces written and performed by founding Artistic Director John O’Neal featuring Junebug Jabbo Jones including Trying to Find My Way Back Home, a new solo performance featuring John’s son, William O’Neal, as Junebug Jabbo Jones, the Younger. O’Neal has also written, produced and toured two pieces for small ensembles, Like Poison Ivy and Ain’t No Use in Going Home, Jodie’s Got Your Gal and Gone. JPI’s national touring program has also included four cross cultural collaborations: Junebug/Jack, the product of a long term collaboration with noted Appalachian theater company, Roadside Theater; Crossing the Broken Bridge, with Naomi Newman, a principal of A Traveling Jewish Theatre; Ballad of the Bones, a quartet by O’Neal and Michael Keck with Brenda Wong-Aoki and Mark Izu of the Asian American company, First Voices; and Promise of a Love Song, a three-way collaboration with Roadside Theater and the Puerto Rican company Teatro Pregones; Uprooted: The Katrina Project, a multi-disciplinary production written and performed by a diverse group of 11 Gulf Coast artists which aims to draw attention to the need for persons who have been displaced by the disaster to organize; and most recently Lockdown, written and performed by teachers, teaching artists and an attorney working in the New Orleans public school system.

As a leader in the progressive arts movement for the past four decades, Junebug Productions has worked in over 500 communities throughout the United States and has participated in several national and international festivals. Central to our community engagement work has been our National Color Line Project, a multi-year organizing project in which we use the Story Circle Process to collect stories from people who were involved with or who recognize that their lives have been significantly influenced by the Civil Rights Movement. JPI has led Color Line Projects in Dayton, OH; Glassboro/Camden, NJ; Mississippi; Flint, MI; West Palm Beach, FL and Akron, OH. In 2002, O’Neal and Theresa Holden were awarded the Ford Foundation Leadership for a Changing World Award for their work on the National Color Line Project.

The Story Circle Process is central to JPI’s art-making and community engagement work. The Story Circle Process was invented by FST members as a way to to engage with audience members following performances.

In 2008 Junebug Productions inaugurated the Free Southern Theater Institute (FSTI) named after Junebug’s predecessor, FST. The FSTI is the laboratory for the pedagogy of community-based cultural engagement and learning. It aims to marry high-quality artistic practice with a commitment to maintaining the essential relationship between culture and progressive social change through engagement with and work in communities of oppressed and exploited people.   The institute’s pedagogy is is grounded in the principles and practices that have been developed and applied across the US for more than 40 years by the FST and JPI.

In 2011, Junebug Productions launched the Homecoming Project, a place-based storytelling performance series that explores the meaning of home in post-Katrina New Orleans. At its heart is the story of oppressed and exploited Black New Orleanians who share the experience of displaced populations around the world. Inspired by New Orleans vernacular art and storytelling, the performance takes on the form of the second line as New Orleans most valuable cultural landmarks are honored and celebrated through music, dance, poetry, theater, parading and masking.

In 2014, Junebug Productions produced Gomela: to return, Movement of Our Mother Tongue. In addition to New Orleans performances, Gomela has since toured to Dallas, TX, San Antonio, TX & Atlanta, GA.

Hear more from John & Dr. Derby: