John O'Neal knows that the road from political activism to the stage of the Kennedy Center is a long one. O'Neal is artistic director of Junebug Productions, a troupe he rescued from the dying embers of the Free Southern Theater, a cultural arm of the civil rights movement that he helped found in 1963.
"Everyone thought that since the movement was no longer extant, there was no need to continue our theater," O'Neal recalls. "But I felt that it was still important to get our stories out to the people. We had to keep talking. We might have had to adjust our strategy, but we had to keep on telling those stories."
O'Neal kept talking, and, nearly two decades later, the troupe is thriving. Now a nonprofit performing-arts company, Junebug tours the country with several original works and a half-million-dollar annual budget. This is art with a mission: Junebug shares the oral history of African Americans "as a means of improving the quality of black Southern life," according to O'Neal. The company is named for Junebug Jabbo Jones, a mythical black Everyman whose morality tales originated with members of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, a Sixties activist group of which O'Neal was a member.
"Junebug was a fictional folk creature born of the movement," O'Neal says. "He emerged as a symbol of the wisdom of ordinary people, whose energy gave orientation to the movement. His stories are based in oral literature, but they're not all straight-up traditional tales. Some of them are stories children have told us that we've adapted for the stage; others are games or songs that we picked up as we traveled along."
O'Neal and company will bring some of these stories to the Valley this week in Gumbo Pot, the troupe's latest collection of folkloric legend and song. Among the traditional tales are "The Buzzard and the Monkey," based loosely on Nat "King" Cole's "Straighten Up and Fly Right," and "The Flying Africans," a ghost story about the horrors of slavery.
The show is part of a series being developed by ASU Public Events designed to give an artistic voice to community concerns. O'Neal's company will join the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, the Roadside Theater, and El Teatro de la Esperanza in presenting ethnic theater throughout the state. Junebug will work in residency with local African-American agencies, including Carver/P.U.C.H.S. Museum and Cultural Center, a former segregated public high school that shut down in 1954, and Sisters With Tongues, an ASU student performance troupe.
The program will culminate in the Untold Stories Festival, a three-day festival of performance-art events. O'Neal sees these residency programs as a natural evolution of the defunct civil rights movement, and his commitment to activism is reflected in the company's folkie tradition of displaying the message before the messenger.
"This is less about the performer than it is about getting his or her story out into the audience," O'Neal says. "We're telling a tale that's entertaining, but the whole production is really about passing along African-American history. That's what makes the performance important."
Junebug Productions' performance of Gumbo Pot is scheduled for 8 p.m. Friday, September 11, at Gammage Auditorium, Mill and Apache in Tempe. Tickets are $15, $7.50 for students and kids 12 and under. 965-3434 (Gammage), 503-5555 (Dillard's).