Hearing in 1989-90 from community members that racism was on the rise, Junebug, Roadside, and Holden Arts 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 play would span the time from the slave trade and the first landing of indentured servants through the Vietnam War.
To build a foundation for the play, we sat in story circles to listen to each other and to better hear ourselves. The circles helped us talk more frankly about race and class, and, as we began to understand our differences, we were better able to see our history and present circumstances. After arriving at a production we felt was real and testing it and revising it with our home audiences in New Orleans and Whitesburg, we set about touring, our stock in trade.
As we began to travel across the South, the trick became how to get black and white working class and poor people to attend. In the main, such folks don't hang out together, much less go to professional theater. We knew if we didn’t get such folks in the house - no matter how popular the drama might be with others (and it was) - that we had failed.
After exhausting our stock of promotional strategies, including getting the word out to places like barbershops and bars where politics are discussed and producing our own radio spots with welcoming racial and class signifiers, we 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 we 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, as the director, I staged the chorus 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, they 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. And I can assure you that the community’s participation only raised the artistic quality of the production -- how much local talent goes unappreciated for lack of a meaningful book and finely crafted musical score!
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 in New Orleans in 1997 to launch a state-wide tour, the ecumenical community choir was thirty-two strong. What a magnificent procession they made 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 powerful preacher asked the five hundred audience members to bow their heads as she led a prayer for our safe keeping. This was encouraging because earlier that week Klan leader David Duke had been stirring things up in the communities we were about to visit.
In the days after these community performances, audience members were invited to join story circles to tell about the dynamics of race and class in their community. With a new-found 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 catharsis didn't occur on the stage but in the community