Toward a Theater of Liberation: Dudley Cocke on the Free Southern Theater’s 50th Anniversary

Dudley - 1Dudley Cocke, Artistic Director of Roadside Theater, has recently published online “Toward a Theater of Liberation,” his reflections on the legacy of the Free Southern Theater — whose 50th Anniversary was celebrated in New Orleans two weeks ago. Dudley joined a host of folks from across the country for a weekend of panels, story circles, and singing — a great deal of which is viewable on HowlRound TV alongside an essay by Michael “Quess?” Moore.

Dudley begins his piece with valuable context for readers unfamiliar with the Theater:

The October 50th Anniversary Celebration of the founding of the Free Southern Theater (FST) brought activists and artists of different ages and backgrounds together with civil rights veterans, who as young men and women in the 1960s put their lives on the line for freedom. Often described as the theater wing of the civil rights movement, the Free Southern Theater was founded in 1963 at Tougaloo College in Mississippi by Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) members Doris Derby, Gilbert Moses, and John O’Neal. In 1985, O’Neal held a funeral, “a valediction without mourning,” in New Orleans for the Free Southern Theater. People came from struggling communities across the US to act and think together about social justice and to witness theater’s power to advance human rights. Roadside performed South of the Mountain, which tells the story of the moment in a family when hillside farming and barter gave way to coalmining and the company store. The 1985 funeral’s week-long series of performances and dialogues culminated in a traditional second line. Snaking out of Congo Square down Dumaine Street into Treme, the relic-filled FST coffin, its pallbearers, and its gathering of followers shimmied and shook to the syncopated beat of a traditional brass marching band.

From the ashes of the FST arose Junebug Productions and its ongoing collaboration with Roadside Theater (the theater wing of Appalshop), and Austin, Texas – based producers, Holden & Arts Associates.  In the ensuing 28 years, the three-way partnership created new plays and developed innovative ways to engage with community organizations across 49 states. To host any Junebug – Roadside performance and workshop, the local presenter had to commit to engaging the full diversity of people in their community.

Folks can continue reading “Toward a Theater of Liberation” here, as Dudley presses contemporary artists and communities to consider how this legacy and its imperatives can inform our contemporary practice, regardless of our field. Whether or not one is a theater artist, the questions raised by the Free Southern Theater and the movement it inspired help frame a relationship to place, culture, and the history of the democratic arts — the latter of which, Dudley asserts, is lost in the contemporary dialogue. As Dudley has previously written, an ignorance of this tradition is often met, especially by those of us from younger generations, with an analogous lack of understanding of how a long-standing politically-motivated program of defunding the community arts culminated in the 1997 restructuring of the National Endowment for the Arts. The Free Southern Theater offers an imperative for hope, hard work, and resistance.