Books by Tom Dent
Blue Lights and River Songs /
The Free Southern Theater
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of the Free Southern Theater in New Orleans
with Karen-Kaia Livers and Chakula Cha Jua
By Rachel Breunlin
Arising out of the Civil Rights Movement of the sixties and
early seventies, the Black Arts Movement redefined what it meant to be African
American. Poets, playwrights, and artists used their mediums to convey a
sense of pride in their heritage and natural beauty as they fought for
liberation in this country. Within the context of this era, the Free Southern
Theater (FST) began at Toogaloo University in Jackson, Mississippi. The
intention of the company was to bring theater to people who had never had access
to it. Thus, they originally toured in predominantly rural, Black areas of the
South. In 1965, however, the FST moved to New Orleans.
Working out of a building in the Creole
sector of the city, the company raised eyebrows as it defied many of the social
norms: "The Movement ideas, the integration, the disrespect for social
conventions in dress and behavior, left a bad taste in the mouths of New Orleans
blacks, who of course did not consider themselves black," relates Tom Dent
in The Free Southern Theater by The Free Southern Theater, a documentary
on the company. "Most of us lived in the French Quarter . . . the temporary
and integrated living . . . attracted considerable public notoriety."
Throughout the FST's first year in the
city, the subject of an integrated theater caused controversy inside the company
as well. Many Black members felt that the company should be a completely
Black theater group, a struggle arose over what direction the theater should
take just as it began to permanently settle into the city. It was
determined by the end of the year that the company would eventually become a
black theater, and with that in mind, FST decided to move to an area of the city
where they would be able to get involved in the life of the community.
FST found a building on Louisa Street in the
Ninth Ward: "it was an old supermarket that had been flooded out in
the horrible hurricane of September 1965.
The supermarket was located in what was generally
considered the worst and most dangerous black ghetto of New Orleans.
. . thus began our romance with the ghetto of Desire". (Dent, 111)
Louis Edwards, Tom Dent Dent, Jason Berry,
Lolis Eric Elie, Tom Piazza
Roscoe Orman, a black actor in the company
writes about the beauty and heartache of the area in a poem:
|Driving down slinky New Orleans
Turns me on
And makes me sad.
Out in Desire
Where the Jazz City funk floats
over the street holes
. . .
All beauty in chains
Rumbling deep somewhere-between-the-stomach-and-the
Oh the day will come
Out in Desire
The day will come.
Seeing the many problems people faced in their neighborhood,
disputes arose within the company regarding the role of the FST in the Desire
community. Some people wanted to use part of their space as a community
center with a library and information center on Black history while others
thought that their activism was primarily through their workshops and theater
productions. In the midst of all the changes, FST produced a play called
Ghetto of Desire.
This play exposed the gross inequalities people
living in the Desire projects faced on a daily basis. In the play, the problems
getting in and out of the project due to the railroad tracks and canals that
surrounded the area, the inadequate recreational facilities for kids, and the
poor condition of the roads within the development came under scrutiny. When CBS
decided to broadcast the play in a program called, "Look Up and Live,"
the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) went up in arms, demanding its
In a letter to Tom Dent, Allen Dowling,
then the Tenet Relations Advisor of HANO, wrote that the script,
"concentrates on a grossly exaggerated description of the project and its
surroundings. The project is identified as a concentration camp." (126) In
the end, the program did not air in New Orleans. The Free Southern Theater,
by the Free Southern Theater documents the history of the theater until
1968. Its participation in the city, however, continued for many more years.
Cha Jua, a long time actor, writer, and director of community theater in New
Orleans recalls his introduction to the FST around the time the book was being
written: "I came out of the Air Force in '68 all excited about joining the FST because when I graduated from high school, I wanted to do theater, but being
a little black boy in 1964, everybody said, 'What you gonna do with theater?'"
Hesitant about the neighborhood at first, he quickly began to
feel at home:
I wanted to join but I was afraid to go downtown. I lived Uptown. I
grew up in the Calliope projects. But we learned later that the
people downtown had heard all these crazy things about us. You know,
when you're a kid you always hear, 'that's the bad part of town' but
you don¹t know you're in the 'bad' part of town
Chukula followed the FST when they moved to Central City, on
the corner of what used to be Dryades and Erato.
The productions were free. People just walked in, the kids came back
every night, they knew the lines to all the plays—it was really a community thing. We had so much going on in
that little raggedy building . . . we had poetry readings, we had coffee shops,
we had midnight jazz that would end at seven or eight in the
also published a radical newspaper called The Plain Truth which raised
issues pertinent to Black communities in New Orleans. City Councilman James
Singleton and Oretha Castle Haley, a well known community activist, were among
the frequent contributors. Unfortunately, lack of funding and the final decision
by director John O'Neal forced the FST to close in the mid seventies. However,
it was not the end of community theater in New Orleans.
Out of the enthusiasm for Black
theater and the frustrations with funding sources, the Alliance for Community
Theater, better known as ACT 1, began. Chakula explains that
there were a lot
of people who were involved in FST who felt that there needed to be a support
group for Black theater in New Orleans. At the time there were only
three theater companies: Free Southern, Dashiki, and the Ethiopian
theater company and people weren't that interested in the
administrative organization. The enthusiasm increased, however, when
we started doing the festival.
Karen Kaia Livers, last year's festival coordinator, elaborates:
The festival is
seventeen years old. Most people wonder why, how when we¹re still not making
money. We don¹t do art for arts sake, we do art for the sake of society, for
culture, and sometimes when you grow too big, you lose that. We still go into
communities and load up out cars with Ms. so and so and her grandchildren and
bring them to the theater, and that¹s how its always been.
In addition to the festival, members of ACT 1, also roam the
French Quarter during the Winter holidays dressed as historical characters, tour
with the Black history program from January through April and work during the
summer at enrichment programs for kids. The
emphasis on participatory theater is rooted in African and African American
cultural traditions characterized as a "call and response."
Decolonizing the Mind, Ngugi wa Thiongo, a Kenyan social activist and
playwright, wrote about how this form of theater actually counteracts society's
education system ,"which practices education as a process of weakening
people, of making them feel they cannot do this or that-oh, it must take such
brain!" by showing people that they have the ability to participate as
well (Ngugi,56). In the type of theater that Ngugi advocates and that, indeed,
the FST and ACT 1 promote, perfection becomes a process that the community can
observe and even contribute to rather than merely watch. Kaia explains how this
understanding of theater works:
In community theater, the invisible wall [between the performers and
the audience] was broken a long time go. It excites us if somebody
yells something from the audience, hopefully it won't throw you
totally off, but that is important. . Our kids productions are very
much involved in pulling them up and bring them on stage.
many of the same philosophies that guided Free Southern Theater continue to
influence the work of performers involved in ACT 1, there have also been a
number of changes. As a part of the fourth generation of performers to come out
of black community theater in New Orleans, Kaia admits she was, "tired of
hearing what it was like . . . I wanted to know what it was going to be like."
Her generation has been more willing to adapt to the dominant forms of media
people engage themselves in these days:
There was always this battle of going to television was selling out,
but that¹s when what I am- the fourth generation- said, well, I want
to do this all the time, I don't want tot have to work a nine to
five doing something totally different and then later on take this
up. . and now we are doing everything-television, radio, film.
In addition to working
with ACT 1, Chakula and Kaia also have a number of independent projects they are
working on. Since Chakula started his own company in 1985, he has performed
around the city and in the public schools.
One of most well known plays he
directs in Tom Dent's play Ritual Murder, which is structured like a
A narrator comes on
stage an announces that Joe Brown Jr, a black youth from New
Orleans, has committed murder, has killed his best friend in a bar
room. Nobody knows why it happened. So the narrator interviews
everyone who know [him] trying to find out why this happened.
By the time the play is over, we realize that everybody has
contributed to this murder. . . This play does more for helping
understand black on black violence, or just violence, than any essay
or book you'll ever read on the subject.
He is currently teaching theater in the public schools through a program called
Arts Connection. Kaia has been working on a number of
projects and hopes to eventually take them on tour. "Teenage
pregnancy" is an interactive theater piece Kaia developed to get her
audience thinking about how they would deal with an unexpected pregnancy. She
has also been working on pieces that bring to life the African American history
of New Orleans.
She explains, "Madam is a piece that talks about women in
New Orleans in the 1800s and how they survived and contributed to Louisiana and
the different laws that prohibited women of color from doing certain things,
from slaves doing certain things." As a long term project, Kaia would like
to create a bridge between community theater in the city and South Africa.
With the opening of Ashe Cultural Center on
Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard (many people continue to call it Dryades), black
community theater may once again find a home in Central City.
Dent, Thomas, Richard Schechner, and Gilbert Moses, eds.
The Free Southern Theater by the Free Southern Theater. New York: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1969.
Ngugi, wa Thiongo.
Decolonizing the Mind. New Hampshire: Heinemann, 1997.
* * *
My Story, My Song (Featuring blues guitarist Walter Wolfman Washington)
Behind the Dream
The Making of the Speech that Transformed a
Clarence B. Jones and Stuart Connelly
Have a Dream.”
When those words were spoken on the steps of
the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963, the
crowd stood, electrified, as Martin Luther
King, Jr. brought the plight of African
Americans to the public consciousness and
firmly established himself as one of the
greatest orators of all time.
Behind the Dream is a thrilling,
behind-the-scenes account of the weeks
leading up to the great event, as told by
Clarence Jones, co-writer of the speech and
close confidant to King. Jones was there, on
the road, collaborating with the great minds
of the time, and hammering out the ideas and
the speech that would shape the civil rights
movement and inspire Americans for years to
come.— Palgrave Macmillan
Behind the Dream: The Making of the Speech that
Transformed a Nation is a smart, insightful,
enjoyable read about a momentous event in history.
It is the "story behind the story" straight from
Clarence Jones, the attorney, speechwriter, and
close friend of Martin Luther King, Jr. As I read
the words on the page, I felt as if I were having an
intimate conversation with the author. The book
helped me to understand the humanity of Dr. King and
the other organizers of the March on Washington.
They were people who saw injustice and called for
change. Despite FBI wiretaps and other adversity,
together they undertook an enormous logistical
effort in hopes that the March would be a success.
Jones himself handwrote the first draft of the
renowned “I Have a Dream”
speech on a yellow legal pad, but it wasn't until
King was inspired to veer from the text that he
struck a chord with the audience, delivering the
right words at the right time. The “I Have a Dream”
speech helped to elevate King from a man to a hero;
this book is a reminder to all to make sure that his
Dream lives on.—amazon
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Blacks in Hispanic Literature: Critical Essays
Blacks in Hispanic Literature is a
collection of fourteen essays by scholars and
creative writers from Africa and the Americas.
Called one of two significant critical works on
Afro-Hispanic literature to appear in the late
1970s, it includes the pioneering studies of
Carter G. Woodson and
Valaurez B. Spratlin, published in the 1930s, as
well as the essays of scholars whose interpretations
were shaped by the Black aesthetic. The early
essays, primarily of the Black-as-subject in Spanish
medieval and Golden Age literature, provide an
historical context for understanding 20th-century
creative works by African-descended, Hispanophone
writers, such as Cuban
Nicolás Guillén and Ecuadorean poet, novelist,
Adalberto Ortiz, whose essay analyzes the
significance of Negritude in Latin America.
This collaborative text set the tone for later
conferences in which writers and scholars worked together to
promote, disseminate, and critique the literature of
Spanish-speaking people of African descent. . . .
Cited by a
literary critic in 2004 as "the seminal study in the
field of Afro-Hispanic Literature . . . on which
most scholars in the field 'cut their teeth'."
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Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in
By Melissa V.
According to the
author, this society has historically exerted
considerable pressure on black females to fit into one
of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the
Matriarch or the Jezebel. The selfless
Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to
white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of
those of her own family’s needs. By contrast, the
relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable
temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as
an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the
characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television
shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.
points out how the propagation of these harmful myths
have served the mainstream culture well. For instance,
the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for
black females to feel a maternal instinct towards
As for the source
of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their
own bodies during slavery given that they were being
auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless,
it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate
the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate
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The White Masters of the
The World and Africa, 1965
By W. E. B. Du Bois
W. E. B. Du Bois’
Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization
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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
George Jackson /
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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg
Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804
January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of
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1 July 2012