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Art and the Free South


By James Smethurst

In the 1960s, the Free Southern Theater, an organization founded by a group of activists with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), traveled to a church in a predominantly Black, rural corner of Mississippi. There they staged Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, an absurdist drama about characters conversing as they wait for someone who never arrives. The play may have seemed like a strange choice—who would imagine that Beckett might connect with rural Black Americans in the throes of the civil rights movement?—but it found at least one admirer in civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer. “I guess we know something about waiting, don’t we?” Hamer said from the audience.

Everyone agreed, and as they discussed the play, the conversation eventually turned to slavery and prisons. “We had this incredible discussion with people who barely had a sixth-grade education,” Denise Nicholas, an actress in the Free Southern Theater, said later. And drama—even high-modernist, experimental drama—functioned as political education.

This was the Free Southern Theater’s goal. As cofounder John O’Neal recalled of its creation:

We claimed to be playwrights and poets; yet the political facts of life presented by the situation we first learned of in the South called for a life of useful (political or economic) engagement. How could we remain true to ourselves and our own concerns as artists and at the same time remain true to our developing recognition of political responsibility?

Their answer was a theater group that aimed, as another cofounder, Doris Derby, put it, “to take the plays out to the rural areas, go around and perform out in the cotton fields or in the churches.” They did so out of the belief that, as Nicholas later explained, “the theater, the images, the language, the physicality of it would open doors in people’s minds that they didn’t necessarily need to read a lot of books to get to.” For the Free Southern Theater’s members, bringing the stage to the countryside made political education accessible while enabling artists to participate in politics.

As James Smethurst chronicles in Behold the Land: The Black Arts Movement in the South, the Free Southern Theater was just one of a number of institutions that sought to marry art with local Black Power politics in the South. In a sweeping history of arts institutions from the 1930s to the ’80s, the book tells the story of how the turn to Black Power politics in the ’60s produced a corollary Black Arts Movement that was especially long-lasting in the South. The Black Power and Black Arts movements, in Smethurst’s account, were “so twinned and joined at the hip that it is impossible, really, to tell where one begins and the other ends.” While Black Power generally aimed to develop Black autonomy rather than gain inclusion in American society, the Black Arts Movement sought to produce a culture that valued Black people and used cultural forms like theater to encourage their entry into Black Power politics.

Read entire article at The Nation