Junebug Jabbo Jones at the Downstage

New worlds constantly invade Billsville. Whether the invasion proves to be of value depends on how much people open themselves up to it, and of course whether people attend in the first place. Last Tuesday Junebug Jabbo Jones held court in the AMT downstage theatre. Portrayed by John O’Neal, Junebug and his audience shared a lot of laughter, much of it sobering.

The performance of the play “Don’t Start Me Talking or I’ll Tell Everything I Know” is a one man production. O’Neal never shared the stage, yet the presence of other characters was always felt. Junebug told stories, moving from narrator, to protagonist, to antagonist, to third party as victim or witness, and back again. The performance was a dialogue between listener and storyteller; the audience was not the third, but the second party.

After the play O’Neal stayed so that whoever wished to could talk with him. He also offered a drama workshop the day after the Tuesday performance, wherein he taught the storytelling technique in the story. He is active in Junebug Productions, a dramatic company based in New Orleans. O’Neal included a short packet to be read while waiting for the performance that explained what was going to begin at 8:00 p.m.

The play, similar to much of O’Neal’s work, draws on African-American oral tradition, most obviously through the dramatic approach of the play as an act of storytelling, but also in the unpremeditated feel of the performance.

The lines and the stories have an ease and flow that gives the impression of the performer freely ranging across a vast palette of experience, choosing exactly what to use at each given moment instead of reciting the lines of a text.

Junebug arose in the face of oppression. The author’s actual acquaintanceship with Junebug himself stems from his involvement with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and the Free Southern Theater during the civil rights movement.

In opposition to the more mainstream civil rights groups that largely focused on legislation and change within the system, Junebug’s did not trust the instruments of their oppression, government institutions, to ensure their liberty. Both organizations strove to directly empower the people against the white majority and its institutions.

Junebug was a legendary figure within this circle to which statements and acts against oppression were assigned. The beginning of the play says this itself. Junebug identifies himself, and those other Junebugs like him, as those who travel about and tell the people about the goings-on against oppression, motivating them to realize their own struggles. All of the stories in some way dealt with that fight and the evil they fought against.

The set was stark: two stepladders with a plank held between them. A ladder could be a prison or a dishonest white boss, hat and all; the plank was alternately a counter, a porch or a fake radio booth. Junebug comes on stage at the beginning, places some things around the set, gets himself in order, rests a little, and the evening begins. O’Neal’s manipulation of his scarce props, the space, and above all his voice and gestures, resulted in a series of masterful episodes.

Junebug told six stories. No simple propaganda, these stories leaped from lows to highs and back again, dealing with the prize and price of making a stand in a twisted world. Jolting denouements carried the full weight of each tale, and O’Neal delivered every transition expertly. During the more tragic parts his intensity was often such that it was uncomfortable to meet his gaze.

Between the stories O’Neal would chat some, going off on one tangent or another until he would be well into the next story. These periods were usually light and humorous, but also served to warn the audience of a dangerous fallacy to adopt in viewing the performance: that these horrors are relics of the past, and that the white people sitting in that filled theater, and living throughout the rest of the United States, have nothing in common with the forces of oppression within those stories.

Junebug pays homage to those who fought against oppression, and continue to fight to this day. The play and its performance are a continuation of that fight that the play realizes, and is thereby a direct homage to O’Neal.