In response to increasing Ku Klux Klan activity in the South in 1981, Roadside and Junebug Productions, the successor to the Civil Rights Movement's Free Southern Theater, began visiting and performing for each other's home audiences – one predominately white, the other black, both low to moderate income.
This approach helped the companies learn about each other's culture, community, audience, repertoire-based aesthetic, and creation and producing practice.
Hearing in 1990 from some of its audience members that racism was on the rise in their southern communities, Junebug and Roadside decided to create and tour a musical play about the historical relationship between black and white poor and working class people in the South.
The two theaters agreed the play would span the time from the African slave trade and the first landing of European indentured servants to the end of the Vietnam War. To build a foundation for the play, the two ensembles sat together in circles telling each other personal stories about their experience with race, place, and class.
The circles helped the artists better hear each other and themselves, and as they began to realize their differences and similarities, they were better able to understand their separate and shared histories and current social circumstances. After arriving at a script that they felt was real and testing it and revising it with home audiences in Louisiana and Kentucky, Junebug and Roadside set about touring the musical play Junebug/Jack.
Holden Arts and Associates (the two companies' booking and producing partner) worked with Junebug and Roadside to find sponsors who thought their community was ready to think about race and class. As the tour progressed, the trick became how to get black and white working class and poor people to attend together, for In the main, such folks don't hang out together, much less go to professional theater.
After exhausting an array of promotional strategies, including getting the word out to places like barbershops and bars where politics are discussed, the companies hit on an idea: Every community wishing to present Junebug/Jack would have to agree to form an ecumenical community choir to perform in the show.
Reflecting each community’s diversity, this new choir might include singers from the black churches, choir members from the white churches, singers from the women's chorus, maybe others from the high school glee club. Several months before the play arrived, each newly formed community chorus received the show’s music and designated a chorus master to conduct evening rehearsals. A few days before the opening performance, the chorus was staged into the show.
A lot of things happened in the course of this process. For starters, the play’s presenter had to begin thinking about the whole community while pulling the chorus together. The singers didn’t volunteer to discuss race and class – they came together because they loved to sing, and this professional play looked like a good opportunity to shine.
In the course of rehearsing the music, the Chorus members naturally hit on a sound that had never been heard in the community, simply because all those different talents had never been joined before – and certainly not to sing beautifully crafted, down to earth songs about the cruelty, heartache, and paradoxes of 400 years of race and class struggle. In this way, Junebug/Jack would swell from a professional cast of six to twenty or more. The community’s participation only raised the artistic quality of the production.
When the show opened, a cross-section of the entire community was present. It didn’t hurt that all the churches had to come out in support of their people. Because the performances enabled everyone to feel confident about their own traditions, cultural chips fell off shoulders. All became eager to witness and to learn more about the other traditions: to experience how the black people sang, or how the white people sang, or what inflections young people brought to the song.
Performing Junebug/Jack in New Orleans in 1997 to launch a statewide tour, the ecumenical community choir was thirty-two strong. They made a magnificent procession swaying down the church aisle in a converted bowling alley singing “This Little Light of Mine.” At the conclusion of the performance, the church’s preacher asked the five hundred audience members to bow their heads as she led a prayer for the theaters' safe keeping. This was encouraging to the performers because earlier that week Klan leader David Duke had been stirring things up in the communities they were about to visit.
In the days after these community performances (and much like the two ensembles had done in creating the play), audience members were invited to join circles to tell personal stories about the dynamics of race and class in their community. With a newfound permission based on trust, they told each other stories that were typically complex, hard, and emotional – and untold before in “mixed” company.
In Junebug/Jack the biggest catharsis didn't occur during the play but in the community’s telling of their own stories. Roadside’s national challenge was shifting from attracting a diverse audience to making sure that diverse audiences had a say about their local arts programs and a voice in the cultural development of their community.
Junebug/Jack toured nationally for eight years. The collaboration spurred the further development of Roadside's, Junebug's, and Holden Arts and Associates' community cultural development residencies.