The Free Southern Theater: Black Theater Movement Allied With Civil Rights Movement

Written by Jae Jones

The Free Southern Theater was a community theater group founded in 1963 at Tougaloo College in Madison County, Mississippi by Gilbert Moses, Doris Derby, and John O’Neal. The Free Southern Theater was a part of the emerging Black Theater Movement and also closely allied with the civil rights movement. The word free in the group’s name referred both to the price of admission and to “the movement building they were doing in terms of just working for equality.”

The group 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).

Workshops were offered for actors, where they were introduced to plays written by their own members. The group 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. They infamously presented “Waiting for Godot” in whiteface.

The theater received a significant amount of recognition and support from black celebrities, however, the group was unable to keep their doors open. Financial problems caused the theater to close its doors for good in 1978. The group of actors disbanded in 1980.




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About the author

Jae Jones

Jae Jones has been writing professionally for over 10 years. She holds a degree in Business Administration, and enjoys writing on various topics.

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