From a 2009 Interview with "Race Peace"

I heard about ROOTS (Regional Organizational Of Theaters South, around 1975 or ’76. At the time, we had a group of about 10 people working with Free Southern Theatre (FST), and when I heard of this formation of cultural workers in the South, I thought, white folks gettin' together again; we better check it out to see which way the wood being chopped is going to fall, hopefully not on us. I thought, well, maybe someone better go over and meet with one of these ROOTS folks. 

Now, I had heard about Roadside before all this, but had never met them. In 1976 there was a ROOTS meeting in Sarasota, as I recall. I was the only one of our group (FST) available to go to that first meeting. It was a festival of a meeting, people bringing their work; I didn’t bring anything because I didn’t have anything at that point to share. I was still on this mission to find out what was going on, what was this organizing impulse? 

I saw Red Fox — the show that these guys (Roadside) had brought— which is about the impact of industrialization of in Southern Appalachia, the impact on the culture and the people, built up out of folktales and stories. I was impressed by the performance. The simultaneous grounding in the culture and the focus on an important issue, using the culture as an avenue to approach it, that’s interesting. 

The Roadside gang was the only company at ROOTS to go have beers, get out guitars, and sing after everything was closed down. So I thought, these are my kind of people. After the conference I went over and was given a cold beer. These people are friendly, that’s good. One thing led to another. Before the surgical repair of his one eye that was blind, Dudley (Cocke) tended to focus with his one good eye and hold you intently in its gaze. Well, he navigated over to where I was leaning on a truck and he said, “Well what did you think of our work?” 

Myles (Horton) had told me that they (Roadside) had the impulse to do work aimed and targeted at the people of Southern Appalachia. Now near Knoxville (the southern tip of Appalachia) is where the KKK was founded. So I said, “From what I understand about where you all live, you have a lot of potential Klansmen in your audience, and frankly I didn’t see anything in your piece that would make a potential Klansman less likely to be a Klansman.” 

Now I had some experience working with white people before, and I knew that this kind of aggressive, though polite, response had a tendency to push white people up against the wall. And I like to get them there and place needles in them, and hold them like specimens to see what they do. Well Dudley didn’t miss a beat in the conversation. He said, “Hmm. What do you think we ought to do about that?” Now I came there not planning on doing sh**. I came to see what they were doing. So that’s what started the conversation that we continue to this day, in one way or another. Memory is a tricky thing, but that’s how I think it went.

Cite This

“Story: John O'Neal Remembers First Meeting Roadside.” April 30, 2014.

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