“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, our audiences, our critics, with our students. What can we do, how can we make it better? And the same value applies to our art; I don’t see art as separate from values.” —John O’Neal
On Feb. 14, 2019, John Milton O’Neal Jr. entered the ancestral realm. He left behind a wife, daughter, son, grandchildren, a great grandchild, many in-laws, and a host of nieces, nephews relatives, and friends. He also leaves behind a legacy of art, organizing, pedagogy, and writing that is the blueprint for Junebug Productions, the organization he founded in 1980 and served as artistic director until his retirement in 2011.
Born in Mound City, Ill., O’Neal earned a B.A. in English and Philosophy from Southern Illinois University in 1962, where he also studied playwriting. With deep sentiment and strong convictions about the nonviolent Civil Rights Movement in the South, John moved to Jackson, Miss., shortly after graduation and became a field secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Georgia and Mississippi. John 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. Along with fellow field secretaries, John worked hard to develop a curriculum for the Freedom Schools and to found a theatre that would serve as a political education and empowerment tool for Southern organizers.
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 SIU, John helped established the Free Southern Theater (FST) in 1963. The FST drew support from the Black community, where it performed in churches, classrooms, and barns, and from Black artists and writers around the country. After its move to New Orleans in the mid-1960s, FST continued its work for justice. From this base the company toured across the rural South, inspiring members of its racially integrated cast to become activists as well as artists.
I met John in the early ’90s during a residency and presentation of Urban Bush Women in New Orleans. But I really got to know him after Hurricane Katrina, when I, along with several other performers and members of Alternate Roots, toured nationally in the multimedia collaborative production Uprooted: The Katrina Project.
In 2011 I served as associate artistic director of Junebug Productions’ 1st Annual Homecoming Project, on which I worked side by side with John. That time with John helped mold and shape me in ways I am still processing. To spend five minutes with John was to have a lifetime of wisdom generously shared with you. Every day I would learn more about his accomplishments as a playwright, poet, actor, director, teacher, arts administrator, and tireless fighter against injustice.
But John was always modest, hardworking, principled, and thoughtful. He always approached his life with care for what was best for people in the communities in which he lived, and worked ever mindful of the interests and needs of oppressed and exploited people the world over. He treated the most difficult and weighty problems with humor, trenchant analysis, and light.
John has trusted the legacy of his beloved Junebug Productions to a second generation of leaders. His wish is that we continue to grow, develop and organize with other caring, committed leaders. We have a lot of work to do, and we are losing ground. The economic, social, and political circumstances can’t remain static. Those on the bottom tend to get worse, and those on the top tend to become worst.
So what is our focus and contribution toward the change we need? We have to be vigilant and work hard to improve our practice. Our task is to be permanent contributors to the ongoing work, supporting the process of change and development.
Our art and cultural work has a particular role to play in that. Culture is where our large conceptions of ourselves get crafted, molded, and built. Our job is to continue to interrogate the ideas of ourselves and to create work that encourages our communities to press forward that interrogation, ensuring that we are doing the best we can to raise the questions upon which our future depends.
I pledge to do all that I can in the next perilous stage of our collective lives and in the lives of the people and communities in which we make home.
Will you join me?
What will you do?
What will be your contribution towards that change?
As John would say in signing off: “Yours in the struggle to make this world a better place.”
Stephanie McKee is artistic director of Junebug Productions. A homegoing celebration for John O’Neal will be held on March 30, 1-3 p.m. at the Ashé Cultural Arts Center in New Orleans.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article stated that the celebration would be held on March 20. It will take place on Saturday, March 30.