Posthumous Production of New Musical Comedy by the Late John O’Neal Lifts Up the Everyday Genius of Working Class Black People

Earlier this month, the Ashé Power House theater at the Ashé Cultural Arts Center in New Orleans was filled to the rafters with theatergoers eager to experience the first full presentation of what sadly will be the final new theatrical work by John O’Neal, a musical comedy named Preacher Man! Preacher Man! 

O’Neal, a giant of the American black theater known for his expansive, reverent love of African American culture, died one year ago on Valentine’s Day, February 14. He was seventy-eight.

“Setbacks in the struggle of black people are setbacks for all,” he wrote. “Progress toward the goal of liberation of the Afro-American people will be a sign of progress for the overwhelming majority of American people.”

O’Neal earned his bonafides as one of the co-creators of the Free Southern Theater, born out of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee during the Civil Rights Era (which disbanded in 1980) and immediately after, Junebug Productions, now in its fortieth year, under the helm of current Executive Artistic Director Stephanie McKee-Anderson.

“When John was approaching retirement and looking for a successor, he asked me: ‘Stephanie, would you consider this?’ ” McKee-Anderson says. “There was less than $3,000 in the bank. Even so, out of love for John, and love and respect for the organization as a specifically black institution whose work needed to continue, I accepted the challenge.”

Junebug, one of the most robust black theaters in the Gulf South region, recently distributed $100,000 of grant money in direct support of five John O’Neal Cultural Arts Fellows.

One of the important artifacts O’Neal left behind was the book and lyrics for Preacher Man! Preacher Man!, on which he’d worked on and off since the 1980s with his friend, Pulitzer-nominated composer Roger Dickerson. The fantastical narrative, set in 1947, tracks the journey of a white preacher for whom everything comes easily, everything but one thing—he doesn’t know how to preach.

The goodhearted but hapless Samuel Quincy Samuels travels from Summit, Mississippi, to the Central City neighborhood in New Orleans, Louisiana, to seek out a black Baptist minister he’d heard at a revival, the Reverend Thaddeus Emeritus Goodbody, pastor of the Temple of True Deliverance Universal House of Faith, a gifted orator who’d stirred his spirit. Samuels asks him for guidance.

If it sounds like a droll conceit, it’s meant to. And it’s very possibly a grand elaboration of a kernel of an idea in “Poets Like Preachers,” one of O’Neal’s handwritten poems held in the archives at the Amistad Research Center at Tulane University. That is where O’Neal’s plays, essays, and poetry are housed for posterity, and have already served as inspiration for several PhD dissertations.

Read the article at The Progressive