Free Southern Theater

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The Free Southern Theater (FST) was a community theatre group founded in 1963 at Tougaloo College in Madison County, Mississippi by Gilbert Moses, Denise Nicholas, Doris Derby, and John O’Neal. The Company Manager was Mary Lovelace, later Chair of the Art Department at U.C. Berkeley. The company disbanded in 1980.

The Free Southern Theater was a part of the emerging Black Theatre Movement and also closely allied with the civil rights movement—O’Neal and Derby were also directors of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).[1] They presented plays by Langston Hughes, John O. Killens, James Baldwin, and Ossie Davis[2]

The founders sought to introduce free theater to the South, both as a voice for social protest, and to emphasize positive aspects of African-American culture.[3] O’Neal, Derby, and Moses outlined the philosophy of the troupe in a founding document:[4]

Our fundamental objective is to stimulate creative and reflective thought among Negroes in Mississippi and other Southern states by the establishment of a legitimate theater, thereby providing the opportunity in the theater and the associated art forms. We theorize that within the Southern situation a theatrical form and style can be developed that is as unique to the Negro people as the origin of blues and jazz. A combination of art and social awareness can evolve into plays written for a Negro audience, which relate to the problems within the Negro himself, and within the Negro community


For professional help in theater management the Free Southern Theater hired professor Richard Schechner, then at Tulane University.[5] They toured rural Louisiana and Mississippi presenting plays such as Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Initially consisting of both black and white actors, the company gradually became exclusively African-American and presented only plays by black playwrights such as the controversial LeRoi Jones (later known as Amiri Baraka).

From the first, the company was plagued by artistic and managerial disagreements;[1][6] and, with free admission as a primary objective, money was always in short supply. Under financial duress and hoping to draw on a larger middle class black population, the troupe moved to New Orleans in 1965.[7] In 1966 Moses, Schechner, and O’Neal left, and the company was taken over by African-American poet and writer Thomas Dent assisted by Val Ferdinand (later known as Kalamu ya Salaam).[8]

The company launched workshops for actors and introduced plays written by their own members.[9] They adapted the play In White America by Martin Duberman to depict the murders of Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) field workers James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman, killed in Philadelphia, Mississippi, by the Ku Klux Klan.[10] They infamously presented Waiting for Godot in whiteface.[11]

But in spite of grants from the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations, and support from celebrities including Harry Belafonte, Arthur Ashe, Bill Cosby, and Julian Bond, The Free Southern Theater gradually lost its creative momentum and financial support and closed in 1978.[4]

In addition to John O'Neal and Gilbert Moses, well known actors who appeared in FST productions included Roscoe Orman,[1] and Denise Nicholas.[12]


  • Harding, James Martin; Cindy Rosenthal; Restaging the sixties: Radical Theaters and their Legacies; Ann Arbor; University of Michigan Press; 2007; ISBN 0472069543
  • Dent, Thomas C.; Richard Schechner; Gilbert Moses; The Free Southern Theater by The Free Southern Theater: A Documentary of the South's Radical Black Theater with Journals, Letters, Poetry, and Essays, and a Play Written By Those Who Built It; New York; Bobbs-Merrill; 1969; ASIN B000H546Q2

External links[edit]

  • Dent, Tom, and Jerry W. Ward Jr, "After the Free Southern Theater: A Dialog". Article in The Drama Review: TDR, Autumn, 1987, vol. 31, no. 3, pp. 120-125, OCLC Number: 479350536