Archive for Sunday, March 29, 1992


March 29, 1992


Inside John O'Neal's head lives the ever-expanding universe of Junebug Jabbo Jones. And on certain occasions O'Neal will let an audience peek inside.

The Junebug universe encompasses the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and '60s not from the perspective of history books or the educated elite, but from the movement's rank and file.

Author and actor O'Neal created, writes for and portrays Junebug Jabbo Jones; he uses the character to tell some wise stories about politics and life. The more tales O'Neal writes about those heady days, the more Junebug has to tell.

"He's a way of entering into a universe that I can explore,'' said O'Neal, the Swarthout Society resident artist for 1992. "Faulkner turned that county he wrote about into a world. It became a metaphor for the whole world, and through Junebug I get access to a universe that I don't have to go and reinvent all the time. . . . He's just a wonderful character. I know a lot about Junebug, but I know there's a lot I don't know.''

O'NEAL PLANS to perform his one-man show "Don't Start Me to Talkin' or I'll Tell You Everything I Know: Sayings from the Life and Writings of Junebug Jabbo Jones, Vol. 1" at 8 p.m. Tuesday at Liberty Hall, 642 Mass. The performance is sponsored by the Swarthout Society, the community support group for the Kansas University Concert, Chamber Music and New Directions series.

In addition to the performance, he will:

Perform "Junebug's Magic Hat'' at 1 p.m. Monday at Kennedy Elementary School and at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday at Broken Arrow Elementary School.

Lead an acting workshop at 3:30 p.m. Monday at the Skilton Lounge in Murphy Hall at KU.

Swap stories with the Heartland Storytellers at 7 p.m. Monday at the Lawrence Public Library.

Discuss issues in minority literature classes at 10:20 a.m. Wednesday at Lawrence High School.

THE NAME Junebug Jabbo Jones comes from several folk characters invented by African-Americans in the 1960s, when O'Neal was a field operative for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a civil rights group. Students at Howard University in Washington, D.C., invented "Dr. Junebug,'' a self-important professor with all the answers. Jabbo was a name the comedian Dick Gregory used in his comedy routines.

But for O'Neal, Junebug Jabbo Jones came to symbolize the wisdom of people whom college-educated activists, like himself, went out to help. Starting in 1979, O'Neal gathered stories people told about the 1960s and put them in Junebug's mouth. That mouth has the cadences of African-American speech as O'Neal encountered it when he ran literacy programs and later the Free Southern Theatre, which he started in 1963 in Jackson, Miss.

"Junebug speaks in a folk idiom, what some people came to call the Negro dialect, as if everyone didn't have a dialect,'' O'Neal said during a recent telephone interview from his office in New Orleans. "It says you don't have to be ashamed of how your grandparents speak or how your neighbor speaks.''

O'NEAL'S OWN background is quite different from Junebug's. He was born in 1940 and raised in a southern Illinois town. He parents, both school teachers, raised him and his brother in relative comfort.

"My parents, even during the period of segregation, raised me and my brother to believe we could do anything we wanted to do, provided we pay the price,'' he said. "I went to college thinking I could do anything I wanted to do. I either wanted to study science or art. After my freshman year science classes I winnowed it down to art.''

He studied theater, literature and philosophy at Southern Illinois University, where he began to explore his talents both as a writer and an actor.

"I WAS interested in the world, and that led me to writing, and my interested in philosophy led me to theater,'' he said. "I started off by reading the dialogues of Plato, and I came to realize that in a dialectical dialogue you work out conflicts. The resolution of conflicts was essential to life itself. That resolution can happen on a stage.''

Thanks to the urging of a campus friend, he joined the SNCC. The action of the day beckoned more forcefully than his dreams of becoming a well-known actor.

"At that point I could have gone to New York and become involved with theater folk and hang out,'' he said. "But at that time there were all these things happening in the South and the world, and they weren't happening in New York.''

IN 1965 O'Neal moved the Free Southern Theatre to New Orleans and ran it for 20 years. O'Neal started Junebug Productions Inc. in 1980 to develop artistic expression among African-Americans in the South. He also writes and directs plays; he recently collaborated with the San Francisco Mime Troupe and is developing a musical and a historical drama on Nat Turner, who led a slave rebellion in the antebellum South. His writings appear in the Winter 1992 issue of Theater magazine, published by the Yale School of Drama.

O'Neal said he keeps expanding his Junebug repertoire; he's now working on a piece that will deal with the character's work during the desegregation protests of the 1950s in Little Rock, Ark. The stories can be funny or sad, but they add up to a potent feeling of hope and good spirits, with some philosophy about power thrown in.

"Junebug tells stories about the responsibilities leaders have to the people and how leaders take advice and earn respect,'' he said. "Some leaders are in it for their own self-benefit and not for the people.''

THE REACTION over the years to Junebug Jabbo Jones has been overwhelming, O'Neal said. Enough people demand productions to keep him in business. He said he believes the stories touch a part of the universes each listener carries around in his or her own head.

"What I find people like about it, is it allows them to discover their folk culture and its complex expression,'' he said. "It's the sense of comfort that one gets from dealing with something familiar and the challenge of digging into things we all believe to be vitally important.''

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