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’Neil, 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.

Here’s the poem:

Poets Like Preachers

My job

like the preacher’s

is to make you move—

and sometimes to make you stop and think—

if laughter

lets you open up a door

that was closed before

then it’s my job

to make you smile

to make you giggle

then break your belly with

the kind of laughter that

will make the door wide open

knock knock

who’s there?


“Who’s there?” in Preacher Man! Preacher Man! is an entire community of working class blacks, do-gooders, and rapscallions, represented by a cast of thirty actors who are more or less willing to embrace this naif from Summit because of the sincerity and humility of his approach. This is consonant with O’Neal’s belief, often expressed in his essays, that the fates of all Americans are tied together. 

“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.”

In the Xavier University of Louisiana production at Ashé, over the course of three acts the cast sang and danced their characters’ vibrant humanity in thirteen numbers that effectively display the history of black vernacular music—work songs, blues, sacred music, spirituals, and gospel, as well as the be-bop of classical jazz—all meant to give “a flash of the history of our music,” according to Dickerson, who scored it (in his elegant hand) for a small ensemble so that it could be performed effectively without a full pit orchestra. 

The tunes range in timbre from the lighthearted “Funky Butt” instrumental that accompanies an ass-shaking dance interlude to passionate anthems of yearning and unexpressed romantic love.

And O’Neal was a lover.

“The truth is in 1969 and 1970, we dated a little bit, but he thought I was too young for him,” his widow Bertha O’Neal says. “He was feeling his oats, so I couldn’t be in a relationship with someone who didn’t think of me as an equal, a kid or something.” O’Neal married another woman, Mary Felice Lovelace, which ended in divorce; as did his second marriage, to Marilyn Norton, the mother of his children Wendi and William. Then in 1992 he reconnected with Bertha.

“I was staying in Atlanta,” Bertha says. “He called me every single night. He was traveling a lot,

and the Delta hub was in Atlanta. The joke was ‘Even if you go to hell, you have to go through

Atlanta first.’”

She credits their successful partnership to the fact that they had similar temperaments. 

“John was easygoing,” Bertha says. “He was an affectionate person, loved to touch and hug. I didn’t ever have to wonder where he was. We had that in common. He talked about his work, which I found interesting, and I talked about mine as an educator, which he also found interesting. He didn’t like a lot of conflict—was not good at it at all. We were together a long time before we had our first argument. The first time we really did have a conflict, he told me ‘I thought you were going to leave me.’ ”

“I wasn’t feeling the whole heteronormativity,” daughter, Wendi Moore-O’Neal, says after seeing Preacher Man! Preacher Man! “I think my dad and Bert had a really beautiful marriage and a powerful love story,” she adds, noting the contrast to his marriage with her mother. “I think that my dad really loved justice, and I think that was the deepest love in his life. He really struggled to understand sexism, what it meant to be a man, and part of a family. He grew as he continued to interact with more and more people, but he had had a blind spot. He wasn’t confused, even when he didn’t understand, he would show up and try and understand later. Bert really taught me how to be more loving to him.”

As his health waned, O’Neal and Moore-O’Neal would sit side by side on the sofa singing together.

“As his memory got softer, the more we’d just take to singing,” Moore-O’Neal recalls. “He liked singing more than he liked to talk.” Their intimate and healing sing-alongs inspired Moore-O’Neal, a professional facilitator, to create twice-monthly free community sings in New Orleans: one for everyone who wants to join their voices together in song, and another solely for black and indigenous people.

Dickerson recalled speaking at O’Neal’s memorial celebration also held at Ashé. Some scenes from Preacher Man! Preacher Man! were shown on a screen, and he had the honor of announcing the upcoming Xavier University production.

Dickerson ended his remarks by expressing the hope that O’Neal would be there as well.

Two more poems by John O’Neal:

My Father Said

As you go through life, my son,

Don’t you fill no great white hope

of hating black and loving white

And getting hooked on dope.

Be angry, don’t be bitter though,

Always remember how to laugh

For when it comes your turn to die

I want this to be your epitaph:

He lived, though not too long

being known to sing the happy song

And dance with joyful glee.

He fought—usually for right—

And he fought a hell’fi’ed fight

To make his people free.

Herein lies his body

Forever from this day

But his soul still rises

When the people are heard to say

“We will be free, We will be free,

or nothing else will be!”

To My Children Yet Unborn

To my children

Yet unborn

I leave

My will to struggle

Let the ancestors

of our people

accept the gift

we pass on.

When I die

burn my body

to make a fine dust

then take the ashes

to a high place

and let the dust

on a wind that spreads

over Africa

To my children

Yet unborn

I leave

My will to struggle—

To my children yet unborn

I have dedicated my life.

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