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I chose also to note O’Neal’s remarkable appropriation of the SNCC character

Junebug Jabbo Jones to incorporate the wisdom of common people, their folklore,

 into the dramatic genre of one-man performance.

   

Books by Jerry W. Ward  Jr.

Trouble the Water (1997) / Black Southern Voices (1992) / The Richard Wright Encyclopedia (2008)  / The Katrina Papers

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On Cultural Work

The Free Southern Theater Institute a Venue for Truth-Telling

 By Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

 

Thursday, January 15, 2009—7:00-8:30 p.m.

Studio at Colton

The first meeting of “From Community to Stage: Introduction to Community Arts,” an intensive theater course offered by The Free Southern Theater Institute, was a moment of reckoning, an exposure of facts and memories from the past as a basis for making decisions about a future.  It was a Shambhala moment. Such moments ought to be cherished, because they enable historians to weave explanatory narratives from threads of thought.

That the discussion occurred in post-Katrina New Orleans does matter. Cultural tensions, both positive and negative, were pervasive in the Crescent City two hundred years before Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the breaking of the levees.   It must be admitted that this city, whether it is recovering or reinventing itself after 2005, is beset with enormous amounts of post-Katrina stress among the privileged, the elected politicians, the officers of order and law, the clergy, the wealthy, the homeless, and the working class, and the elderly inching by on fixed incomes.  

Our ability to deal with physical illness is limited, but our ability to treat overt and subtle mental distress is minimal and wanting. Most often the fact that psychic or psychological problems are and have been an integral part of New Orleans’s cultures is denied or ignored.  The reason is not far to seek. Our tourism industry has the goal of nurturing lucrative fantasies about one of the most carnivalesque urban communities in the United States.  Except among genuine community organizers, who are labeled radical, reverse-racist, dangerous, retrograde and crazy, “Truth” is out to lunch. The Free Southern Theater Institute recognizes community theater is one venue for truth-telling, for organizing, for renewing commitments, for dramatic investigating and broadcasting human problems that are beyond resolution.  Thus, the FST Institute has begun communal exploration of the histories of the Free Southern Theater (1963-1980) and Junebug Productions (1980-2009) as they are combined in the presence of John O’Neal, a primal, catalytic force in both enterprises.

The Institute is an educational enterprise.  Its 2009 Registration Form specifies that

[t]hrough case studies, readings, videos and group discussions, students will learn about community-based arts practices and how the arts are used in organizing.  They will also learn about the history of the Free Southern Theater and the Black Arts movement in the south (sic).  Students will also work with guest artists to create original writing and choreography that will be shared in a public performance on April 16 and 17 at the Studio at Colton.

Students can get a good capsule history of Free Southern Theater and Junebug Productions at www.junebugproductions.org, but they need to read The Free Southern Theater by the Free Southern Theater (1969), edited by Tom Dent, Gilbert Moses, and Richard Schechner.  Required reading should include  James E. Smethurst’s The Black Arts Movement: Literary Nationalism in the 1960s and 1970s (2005) for its coverage of FST, BLKARTSOUTH, and the Southern Black Cultural Alliance (SBCA) and Kim Lacy Rogers’s Righteous Lives: Narratives of the New Orleans Civil Rights Movement (1993) for its insights about Tom Dent’s formative role within the development of FST after 1965, his championing of FST’s attack on the provinciality of New Orleans and the morally corrupt ethos of multiracial America.

They need to know W.E.B. DuBois’s 1926 essay “Criteria of Negro Art” in order to digest his memorable statement: “I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda. But I do care when propaganda is confined to one side while the other is stripped and silent.” They should want to know about the death of FST and its funeral in “A Valediction without Mourning for the Free Southern Theater 1963-1980,” the 1985 conference John O’Neal coordinated to mark the end of an important phase in black theater history.

They ought to penetrate history with a ruthlessly critical intelligence, so that they can emerge from the course empowered  (1) to understand that FST and Junebug Productions are anchored in strategically different principles of cultural work and aesthetics and (2) to decide whether their commitment for a future, especially if they remain in New Orleans, is to pragmatic provoking of consciousness among ordinary rainbow folk about their “enslavement” in global horrors or to capitalist ideals of theatrical excellence.  They must make a crossroads decision.

The Shambhala moment of January 15 was shaped by the witnessing of Chakula cha Jua, Frozine Thomas, and Bill Rouselle, all of them FST alumni, by John O’Neal’s authoritative commentary, and my own jeremiad about community theater in 2009, the first year of the Obama Era.  For ancient Sanskrit thinkers and storytellers, Shambhala is a spice, a term designating a place of peace, tranquility and happiness.  Those qualities did flavor the discussion of cultural history, but cultural history is incomplete with bittersweet herbs of war and greed.  The five of us put it all in the gumbo.

Chakula cha Jua [McNeal Cayette] spoke passionately about his life and his coming of age as an actor and director in FST.  In 1985, the year of FST’s funeral, he founded the Chakula cha Jua Theater, which continued the kind of socially responsible productions for which FST had been noted.  He is currently planning to direct Angola 3 by Parnell Herbert, a play that documents the plight of Robert Hillary King, Albert Woodfox, and Herman Wallace, each of whom spent nearly thirty years in solitary confinement at Louisiana’s penitentiary.   Frozine Thomas, who was much acclaimed for her role as Ma Reed in Vernel Bagneris’s legendary blues and jazz revue

One Mo’ Time (1979) and in its sequel Further Mo’ (1990) in the Lyric Theater of New Orleans, told a poignant and wise story of her initial maturation in FST and her subsequent success in the theater world of New York.  With a blend of seriousness and humor, Bill Rouselle revealed much about his early days in FST, a prelude to his subsequent work with Black Collegian magazine and his founding, with Kalamu ya Salaam, of the firm Bright Moments.

These New Orleans natives recreated a rich sense of how Free Southern Theater coexisted and competed with Ethiopian and Dashiki Theaters, and an even richer sense of how their individual and collective commitments were focused on work——the development of craft and sustained focus on the intersecting of politics and art in the life of their birthplace.  Theirs was not a casual investment or an ego-driven dabbling in culture.  It was work of a kind that made a historical difference and inspired Frozine Thomas to end with an apocalyptic utterance: unless we deal with festering stress in New Orleans, in time the inhabitants shall destroy the city.

Given that John O’Neal did not mention his still timely critique “Art and the Movement,” published in Black Southern Voices (1992), I chose to recount a few memories about the founding of FST at Tougaloo College (1963) and its necessity as a cultural institution in both the Civil Rights and Black Art/Black Aesthetic Movements.  I chose also to note O’Neal’s remarkable appropriation of the SNCC character Junebug Jabbo Jones to incorporate the wisdom of common people, their folklore, into the dramatic genre of one-man performance. By calculated indirection, I was trying to sketch the options we have in deciding where do we go from here. We can follow the model of eschewing the values of so-called legitimate theater as did Tom Dent in his classic play Ritual Murder (born assuredly from his commitment to the goals of the FST as community theater).

We resurrect the dead for the edification of the living by addressing the intimate relationship of local and global issues. We can further dramatize and recreate Junebug Jabbo Jones as the devastatingly brilliant hip hop intellectual a la Huey Freeman from Aaron McGruder’s Boondocks.  We create mirrors for unstable twenty-first century identities that distance audiences from multiple centers of daily pain.  Our third option is to make a new investment in the unified, endless struggles of art and politics and to search for forms unknown that permit theater and community-based arts practices to be instrumental in a reclamation of our humanity that is most definitely not post-racial.

Foolish is the egg which would teach a bird how to fly. And equally foolish are people who deny that progress is a snowflake that is here today and gone tomorrow.

Copyright © 2009 by Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

posted 19 January 2009 

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The Katrina Papers is not your average memoir. It is a fusion of many kinds of writing, including intellectual autobiography, personal narrative, political/cultural analysis, spiritual journal, literary history, and poetry. Though it is the record of one man's experience of Hurricane Katrina, it is a record that is fully a part of his life and work as a scholar, political activist, and professor.  The Katrina Papers  provides space not only for the traumatic events but also for ruminations on authors such as Richard Wright and theorists like Deleuze and Guattarri. The result is a complex though thoroughly accessible book. The struggle with formthe search for a medium proper to the complex social, personal, and political ramifications of an event unprecedented in this scholar's life and in American social historylies at the very heart of The Katrina Papers . It depicts an enigmatic and multi-stranded world view which takes the local as its nexus for understanding the global.  It resists the temptation to simplify or clarify when simplification and clarification are not possible. Ward's narrative is, at times, very direct, but he always refuses to simplify the complex emotional and spiritual volatility of the process and the historical moment that he is witnessing. The end result is an honesty that is both pedagogical and inspiring.Hank Lazer

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The Richard Wright Encyclopedia (2008) is a marvelous resource! It's not like any encyclopedia I've seen before. Already, I have spent hours reading through the various entries. So much is there: people, themes, issues, events, bibliographies, etc., related to Wright. Yours is a monumental contribution! The more I read Wright (and about him), the more I am amazed at the depth and breadth of his work and its impact on the worlds of literature, philosophy, politics, sociology, history, psychology, etc. He was formidable! Floyd W. Hayes

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AALBC.com's 25 Best Selling Books


 

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Super Rich: A Guide to Having it All

By Russell Simmons

Russell Simmons knows firsthand that wealth is rooted in much more than the stock  market. True wealth has more to do with what's in your heart than what's in your wallet. Using this knowledge, Simmons became one of America's shrewdest entrepreneurs, achieving a level of success that most investors only dream about. No matter how much material gain he accumulated, he never stopped lending a hand to those less fortunate. In Super Rich, Simmons uses his rare blend of spiritual savvy and street-smart wisdom to offer a new definition of wealth-and share timeless principles for developing an unshakable sense of self that can weather any financial storm. As Simmons says, "Happy can make you money, but money can't make you happy."

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The New Jim Crow

Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

By Michele Alexander

Contrary to the rosy picture of race embodied in Barack Obama's political success and Oprah Winfrey's financial success, legal scholar Alexander argues vigorously and persuasively that [w]e have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it. Jim Crow and legal racial segregation has been replaced by mass incarceration as a system of social control (More African Americans are under correctional control today... than were enslaved in 1850). Alexander reviews American racial history from the colonies to the Clinton administration, delineating its transformation into the war on drugs. She offers an acute analysis of the effect of this mass incarceration upon former inmates who will be discriminated against, legally, for the rest of their lives, denied employment, housing, education, and public benefits. Most provocatively, she reveals how both the move toward colorblindness and affirmative action may blur our vision of injustice: most Americans know and don't know the truth about mass incarceration—but her carefully researched, deeply engaging, and thoroughly readable book should change that.—Publishers Weekly

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Faces At The Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism

By Derrick Bell

In nine grim metaphorical sketches, Bell, the black former Harvard law professor who made headlines recently for his one-man protest against the school's hiring policies, hammers home his controversial theme that white racism is a permanent, indestructible component of our society. Bell's fantasies are often dire and apocalyptic: a new Atlantis rises from the ocean depths, sparking a mass emigration of blacks; white resistance to affirmative action softens following an explosion that kills Harvard's president and all of the school's black professors; intergalactic space invaders promise the U.S. President that they will clean up the environment and deliver tons of gold, but in exchange, the bartering aliens take all African Americans back to their planet. Other pieces deal with black-white romance, a taxi ride through Harlem and job discrimination. Civil rights lawyer Geneva Crenshaw, the heroine of Bell's And We Are Not Saved (1987), is back in some of these ominous allegories, which speak from the depths of anger and despair. Bell now teaches at New York University Law School.—Publishers Weekly /  Derrick Bell   Dies at 80

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery / George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of Haiti 

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