John O'Neal, co-founder of the Free Southern Theater and founder and director of Junebug Productions, recently visited Emerson to conduct Story Circle workshops and deliver a lecture recounting his experiences working with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Committee for Racial Justice during the civil rights movement. He also shared excerpts from his performance as Junebug Jabbo Jones, a mythic character created by SNCC members to symbolize the wisdom of everyday people.
A process innovated by O'Neal, the Story Circle is now widely employed in academic, creative, and social action pursuits. According to Department of Performing Arts Professor Robbie McCauley, the Story Circle method is a simple approach to dialogue that can be used as part of the creative process and for political or social action.
“I thought the process and John's works were central to Emerson's focus,” said McCauley. Participants told her the workshops were “enlightening, fun, deep, and intimate.”
During the Story Circle, participants tell stories around a common theme or issue for the same amount of time without interruption. The stories often build off each other and inspire productive dialogue about difficult issues.
“When we tell stories, we are sharing with each other how we put things together,” said O'Neal. “When we share stories, we share parts of ourselves. The use of a circle where everyone can see each other is critical, as it implies an equal, active, and democratic role for each participant.”
Since 1963, O'Neal has worked with artists, organizers, and community members to work toward social justice through collaborative processes of reflection, creation, and action. He has written and directed numerous plays and toured throughout North America, Europe, and Africa with his performances of Junebug Jabbo Jones. From his home base in New Orleans, O'Neal has been instrumental in galvanizing an arts-based movement for social and environmental justice in the post-Katrina city. In 2002, O'Neal and project partner Theresa Holden won the Ford Foundation Leadership for a Changing World Award for their Color Line Project, a community-based story collection, organizing, and curriculum development initiative about the civil rights movement. In 2010, he was honored with a USA Artist Award.