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Gilbert Moses discusses The Free Southern Theater and his play "Blues for Mister Charlie" with Studs Terkel ; part 2

BROADCAST: Aug. 10, 1966 | DURATION: 00:25:37


Studs interviews Gilbert Moses about his play, "Blues for Mister Charlie" and The Free Southern Theater. They discuss a variety of plays that include, "White America," "Roots," and "Blues of Mister Charlie."


Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.


Gilbert Moses Well.

Studs Terkel You know, go ahead, you're talkin' now about new techniques. You're talkin' now about a certain method or a technique, the old traditional one, or whether it be the printed word, the written word. This is--I hate to bring up the name Marshall McLuhan. He is the, he is the--

Gilbert Moses I don't know who

Studs Terkel Marshall McLuhan is the Canadian oh, he's observed for the scenes, be--the electronic age of the two dif--the different means that are happening, [match strike] you know, the fact that TV is here, the fact electronics is here, the different ways of reaching people. So much is coming at us at one--you're talking about something else. You're saying that to actually reach a people, and to dig out the richness that is in them, buried-

Gilbert Moses Yes,

Studs Terkel -it must be a technique other than you say the book or the magazine or the traditional play.

Gilbert Moses Other other than the traditional play. In other words, we all know that there is a great deal of talent that's suppressed in the in the [match strike] Black community and there's a a great many aspects of the culture which aren't respected by the Black community simply because they are not respected in the white community or are looked upon as foreign, alien, in in the white community and and we also know that television, movies, and the advertisment business for the most part has been racist and theater is segregated and that [laughter] if we're going to do something in that theater it's a mirage or that we--if in order in order to really do something, they feel they fulfill their quota, I think, if Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Sammy Davis star.

Studs Terkel A

Gilbert Moses Yes. Yes. Right. And if we're really thinking seriously about theater we should think about building our own. In other words, simply because there are not enough theaters nor enough parts, all you can play is Othello, or if you're not tall you can't play him, you might play the Prince of Morocco in, at some other play, or something.

Studs Terkel This is, we come back to--but I wanna to ask you about that subject of open casting, which is a very interesting point. But, Gilbert Moses is our guest. He is now at the moment in rehearsal for the Hull House Parkway communities in the South Side directing "Blues for Mister Charlie", of James Baldwin, and then now performing, by the way, his earlier play, "Amen Corner", which is sort of autobiographical in nature, his memory of Harlem boyhood and childhood. There's something you said, this is connected with Baldwin, too, connect with everything, the sense of shame for a richness that many of the Negroes have felt because it was not accepted by the majority community. A sense of shame of the very richness. I'm sure many people were ashamed of country blues or of spirituals.

Gilbert Moses Yes. Yes, absolutely. It's just happening now, I I suppose. And unfortunately it's not happening because of the Black people, it's happening because of a few whites who are, who have preserved a lot of the country blues styles, who have recorded them. You yourself, I think, with Big Bill Broonzy and of all of that.

Studs Terkel Oh, you heard that!

Gilbert Moses Yes.

Studs Terkel Oh.

Gilbert Moses And a lot of other people who have--for instance, Ed Pearl in Los Angeles, the Ash Grove, has kept the place open, that Lightning Hopkins wouldn't have been known if he

Studs Terkel Alan Lomax his early collecting,

Gilbert Moses Yes. Those, those things.

Studs Terkel But this, if I can return to this theme, now with the Freedom Movement, there has been now, has there not, been a resurgence of pride in that which was considered less than good because it was not accepted by the majority of the white community. Is there, is there now, do you feel a changed by a great many?

Gilbert Moses Yes. Well, I think, and I think it's a very honest change. In other words, we've been in the movement for a long time. We've demonstrated nonviolently, etc. and we have, we were--a lot of us had just come out of college, let's say 1961, and we had the echoes of liberal arts education on our minds. Humanity, you know, integration etc., in other words, we had a liberal attitude, we were liberal Negroes, liberal Blacks, you know. And I think a lot of us went down South to build the society that we believed in which was an integrated society as is a democratic integrated society. And it's not that one is in, I guess the only word is, disillusionment with that attempt. And I think it certainly happened with the Free Southern Theater. We've undergone a great change. At the same time, the movement was undergoing the great change in terms of Black power, in terms of building our own theater, in terms of finding our own roots.

Studs Terkel You know, as as as you say this, I can't help but think, I'm sure he wouldn't say to me now, a friend of mine, I haven't seen him in a long time, Negro disc jockey, at the time I was writing some of Mahalia's programs on radio, and she was the first one, first Negro artist at the moment to have a radio program, and I'm doing some of the continui-- and it also was Mahalia's own contribution, of course, I was just a little bits--and he was saying he felt pretty bad about it, I says "Why?" He says, "Why couldn't it have been Lena Horne?" He said, "Why couldn't it have been Sarah Vaughan or Dorothy Dandridge?" And then suddenly I realized what he was saying. You know.

Gilbert Moses I don't quite understand.

Studs Terkel He was ashamed. He wanted someone who looked sort of, by white standards, you see, lovely and beautiful and svelte, in this instance whereas Mahalia--and also spoke with a certain kind of language, since Mahalia's language was more rough in nature than the others, see. So he was accepting the stereotype.

Gilbert Moses Yes. Well, I think what we found out is this: Whether it's true or not, Myrdal points out in, what is it?

Studs Terkel "The American

Gilbert Moses "The American Dilemma." That America is the only place where the oppressors believe the same things they oppress. The oppressors believe the same things as those who are oppress them. That's the American creed, the Democratic creed. And I think what we found out was that in order to really change the society or change anything, that you have to have another form, a third reference, another reference, that going within the system itself is only reforming. And in other words, if we want to have freedom now, obviously this country can't provide that. So we have to look for something else to provide that, to provide even the attitude for us. And I think that attitude becomes an internationalism, a connection with Africa and the third world. And and that art. Now, no matter how many people tell me that, "Well, you know, I'm a mulatto. My mother is yellow." You know? How many people tell me that there are no connections with Africa, etc. like that it's, that's finally not the point, because I think there are, even though I've never been there, I've seen a New Orleans man on Mardi Gras time, at Mardi Gras time, people in in saloons with tambourines dancing, jumping around. I know, and I'm not saying that this is this is the only indication of this connection with Africa or anything except that, from reading the literature and I have read a great many African playwrights, and from reading their folktales, at least I find something relevant there, which I didn't find in "Great Expectations" or anything. [laughter]

Studs Terkel Well as you speak of these folk tales, sometimes I wish Big Bill were alive, of course, Big Bill telling tales that are so directly related to some of the African folktales you're talking about, the tall tales-

Studs Terkel Yes.

Studs Terkel -but also Bill's--have you--I think Gil knows [slap noise] or would be very interested in this, Big Bill's experience in Senegal when he was there, and he heard a certain kind of music, he says, Bill says that is the blues.

Gilbert Moses Yes, I can believe it.

Studs Terkel He says, that is the blues. And they asked Bill to sing, and they understood what he was singing. Here's Bill, an American Negro, born in Mississippi, raised in Arkansas-

Gilbert Moses Yes.

Studs Terkel -picked cotton, builded everything, everything. But nonetheless, this American Negro was understood in Senegal and he said that he heard, he and Bill demonstrated again, I wish that there was a tape, with his guitar and with a certain way of singing, Bill was demonstrating-

Studs Terkel Yes.

Studs Terkel -exactly what he's talking now about Senegal, and I'm sure this is true of other parts of Africa. In fact, he thought he recognized his family there-

Gilbert Moses Yes.

Studs Terkel -Broonzy, even his name, and of course, Bill was filled with wondrous [laughter] tales, size and everything of course.

Gilbert Moses Well, I think this is, see, this is another fallacy which, perhaps, holds true for a lot of bourgeois Negroes who've been educated out of [match strike] any sort of semblance of being Negro at all, but for the masses of people in the country, masses of Black people, there's a great culture that has nothing, that has a--is a hybrid culture, certainly it's Golgi culture that is a mixture of the white and the Black, but that is that has its own merits and that has nothing to do, let's say, with with whatever the white or so-called accepted standards of this country. And I think that it in a--Jones points out in "Blues People" this semblance between the blues music and the African pentatonic scale, etc.

Studs Terkel Because as you say this, I came--a very funny thought comes to my mind. We we read in society pages and columns about the jet set and various discotheques and the dances they're doing, and I remember on the west side of Chicago, several years ago, little kids, little Negro girls dancing rope, and with great grace and everything, doing various dances, these self-same dances I have seen there, but done in a much more gauche way-

Gilbert Moses Yeah.

Studs Terkel -by at the fashionable discotheques.

Gilbert Moses Sure.

Studs Terkel So no one recognizes the borrowing-

Gilbert Moses Yes.

Studs Terkel -that was there. And your fro-[unintelligible]

Gilbert Moses The fantastic Negro-fication of American culture.

Studs Terkel But the borrowing, I must admit rather, with a great deal of gaucherie, but I 'cause I remember the grace on that corner on Hoyne and I forget on the west side on the summer evening, and but this--no one acknowledges the fact that this is borrowed all

Gilbert Moses the- Yes.

Studs Terkel -way, even if badly borrowed.

Gilbert Moses Well, [unintelligible] who has it, [throat clearing] Lawrence Lipton, I think, has a book out, called "The Erotic Revolution", and in it he talks about the Negro-fication of American culture and he talks about in terms of literature also how the language or the hipster language has become--

Studs Terkel The very language itself, has become the idiom of today.

Gilbert Moses Yes, that's it, it is a borrowed thing. Also referring to you your seeing those kids on the west side, the games that kids play now, the rhythms, fantastic. Is in other words, the dances originate, a lot of them, from those games. There's one that has a, it goes "I open my eyes and what did I see. A big fat man from Tennessee. Ooh ah, she's making it. Ooh, ah." You know, that sort of thing, and the dancers are there. [laughter]

Studs Terkel And the words, of course, from the children, naturally, from the kids in the streets, the imagination that's free, I suppose you come back, if I could use this phrase, "childlike," not childish, there's a big difference there. Audience being, this, of course, not talking about the incredible obscene stereotype of Negroes being childlike, I'm talking now about the childlikeness of this audience that is, in being open to something-

Gilbert Moses Yes.

Studs Terkel -as a young person is, not childish [unintelligible]. Childish is the banal TV things we're talking about, the banality. This being open and free to something. Come back to the kids on the street. The freedom that is there that makes for this whatever grace that follows. Because then, again, we came we come back to the theme culture, don't we? We come back to culture.

Gilbert Moses Yeah, what is it, you know? I I'm just convinced that whatever it is, it has to be remade each generation and that in ord--and that we've been taught that it is something that has been preserved throughout the ages that we must strive to understand. And I think it is something that that we stand on the same shore, we look and we say, as Frantz Fanon says, "Each generation from relative obscurity must either fulfill its mission or betray it," and that's what culture is, the seeking and the searching out of that generation.

Studs Terkel I'm thinkin' your three years with the Free Southern Theater, obviously your own growth and your discoveries from the audience-

Gilbert Moses Yes.

Studs Terkel -as well as the richness that you gave there, but what you got certainly equal, so out of this has come your your feeling about theater that some other approach is needed, other than the traditional one we have.

Gilbert Moses Yes. Someth--one that's that's openly connected with politics and in terms of openly questioning just looking around you and turning it around in another light, that's simply what it means to me. It is taking an everyday thing and just turning it around simply for [laughter] the hell of it simply because you can never see this, you would never be able to look at it the same way. And what we do, we are conditioned, we're conditioned by Madison Avenue, we're programmed right down the line. And television is programmed, and if theater can't be free enough to open up people's mind minds, not necessarily to a new ideology, not necessarily to a new propaganda, but simply to the many alternatives that exist in the simple everyday process.

Studs Terkel Itself really, I suppose.

Gilbert Moses Yes.

Studs Terkel [unintelligible] Or another way of putting it to to really dig into the potentialities in man untapped.

Gilbert Moses Absolutely.

Studs Terkel As the -you're talkin' now about the one blinder approach, the sameness, the formula that-

Gilbert Moses Yes.

Studs Terkel -is accepted, of course, by Madison Avenue and by Hollywood, the entertainment industry. You're saying this, man himself, no matter who, Black, white, man himself as far from discovering-

Gilbert Moses Absolutely.

Studs Terkel -potentialities in him.

Gilbert Moses Absolutely.

Studs Terkel So the Free Southern--before I ask you about "Blues for Mister Charlie", we should say the Free Southern Theater is still in existence-

Gilbert Moses Yes.

Studs Terkel -still going on and passing the hat, or the green bowl, and let's suppose somebody would like to contribute something to the Free Southern Theater.

Gilbert Moses It's Post Office Box 2-3-7-4, New Orleans, Louisiana. They're now traveling in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. They're putting on an hour of Afro-American poetry. And also they're doing a one-act play which I wrote, called "Roots".

Studs Terkel Oh, it's a play that you wrote.

Gilbert Moses Yes.

Studs Terkel When did you write that--wait. Let me--Box 2-3-7-4. New Orleans is the center. New Orleans is your anchorage.

Gilbert Moses Yes.

Studs Terkel What is the play you wrote?

Gilbert Moses It's a, it's called "Roots." [laughter]

Studs Terkel That same title as Arnold Wesker's play.

Gilbert Moses Right. It's an attempt to [match strike]--to use my language, my parents' language. It's about an old Negro couple and their dis-disillusionment. Actually the theme of it is, how was it we were caught, and it's an ineffectual emasculated Negro male and a light-skinned, in other words, a light- skinned wife who is hung up on memory. What happens, what happens is he gets caught in a large rat trap at the end of the play, be--just before he goes out to start a revolution. It's a very funny play because I--

Studs Terkel It has humor.

Gilbert Moses Yes. I think that's very important, matter of fact.

Studs Terkel Let's talk just a bit, do you say, the importance of humor, the humor of that within life itself, the humor out of adversity, the underground humor almost, in a way, too.

Gilbert Moses Yeah, well, I think that everything is quite funny. I'm pretty serious, [laughter] unfortunately. But when I write, things are very funny, the whole--it's even, it's not just simply the kind of humor in "Purlie Victorious", which is a sort of ribald type of, ribald type of thing. It's a, it's a pathetic humor. It's the type of humor you find in the most, in most avant-garde plays, in other words. For instance, one of the lines in my play goes, he's reading the newspaper and she says, "Why are you reading a newspaper without me?" He says, "There's no harm in it done." "I know there's no harm in it. But why are you reading the newspaper. You know you can't read," she says. "I know I can't," in other words, "I know I can't read. But I'm only --" She says, "Why don't you wait for me? I'm your wife, I fix your supper," you know, it's that type of thing. [laughter]

Studs Terkel The absurdity.

Gilbert Moses Yes.

Studs Terkel The absurdity that is our existence to such an extent, and out of this absurdity, obviously, Free Southern Theater and certainly Gilbert Moses trying to find some sense, some sense without losing the humor, of course, which is life, but some semblance of clarity as to what it's all about, really, is what you're really asking.

Gilbert Moses Finally, and I think that's the question that we have to all ask, and not and not be afraid to experiment. And to find out it's gonna to take, I think, a very long time, let's say, it takes my lifetime to discover, if I'm seriously interested in theater, to discover what kind of theater I can make. What kind of theater we can all participate in? At this point, my preference is to have a Black theater, that is, to have a theater in which we concentrated solely upon hitting our audience in which we relaxed and said the things that we needed. But perhaps there's, you know, perhaps after that there's a chance for a real integrated theater after we have brought people to a consciousness of theater is what exists around you. And we need new playwrights and people to write about it-

Studs Terkel Yes. Yes.

Gilbert Moses

Studs Terkel -rather Yes.

Gilbert Moses - rather than the accepted.

Studs Terkel I think, perhaps, as the audience can probably guess, Gilbert Moses is touching on a theme far beyond theater. The matter of a truly integrated theater is not something, again, superimposed from outside and said, "This is so. And it's fine," but a discovery of self of each people.

Gilbert Moses Yes.

Studs Terkel And then with the discovery of each people, there comes an integration that is a fusion that is richer even than the single one.

Gilbert Moses Certainly, because there's a dialectic that has occurred. We've come from different directions, then, and then we can actually talk to each other, otherwise we're coming up through your system of [match strike] of theater and what can we do in it? Right. That's another discussion.

Studs Terkel That's another discussion [laughter] perhaps, and I think I'm certain I'm going to have another one, I will, with Gilbert Moses and perhaps his colleagues. When does "Blues for Mister Charlie" probably will have been opened by the time this program is on, it's at the, you're I know you're in the middle of directing it now, when is opening date?

Gilbert Moses August 16th.

Studs Terkel August 16th. No, this will be on before--August 16th is the opening date of "Blues", it'll play weekends, won't it?

Gilbert Moses No, it'll play Tuesday, Wednesdays, and Thursdays.

Studs Terkel Oh, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays.

Gilbert Moses If we can get it on.

Studs Terkel Get it on, but it's due, due for August 16th. And this is--by the way, a wholly different approach, Gil Moses was saying this earlier, than the Broadway production directed by Burgess Meredith. This is a different approach entirely.

Gilbert Moses Well, I I don't necessarily--I have no need to compare it with that. I just know the way I work, you see. And what I would like to do, I would like to use if I could, use film in this play. But actually I'm stuck with using photographs, slides, and that's only because the play is I think a great play. I think it's the only play that says what it says even though it says it with a great deal of ambiguity, too, but it's the only play that--and it's a movie to play. It's not a--it's, it's melodramatic, it uses a lot of flashbacks, I think it innovates a great deal in playwriting. I think that a great deal, it's like "After the Fall" by--

Studs Terkel Miller?

Gilbert Moses Yes. In terms of the way it flashes from reality and illusion. And I would like to use slides behind the actors that comment upon what's going on on the stage and sometimes maybe incongruous, incongruous with what's going on onstage, because I think the image is very important. I think that theater for the most part, is a combination of, it's poetry and action, it's a combination of the image, words, music, dance, all that, you know, and that it is not simply the word is what we, what the American culture has emphasized so much, that is the verbal. I don't think it's that. And my play tries to work with images and that's what I'd like to do, [influence?]. I think it's also a very human play. I think what I saw in New York was a very direct and very stereotypical. I've been there. In the South. I know what's happening. At least I know what this play is trying to say. I- You know. And the demonstrations, the pain and anguish that goes into demonstrating. And it's a very human thing. And I think we, I think the play will show that.

Studs Terkel And I look forward to seeing this, and certainly our guest, Gilbert Moses, has a freshness, his own ideas, about theater as related as it must be, to life. So Gil Moses, anything, any base we haven't touched, that you feel like [unintelligible]?

Gilbert Moses I'd like to say that, when we did "In White America", what we were trying to do there was--

Studs Terkel That was with the Free Southern Theater in the South.

Gilbert Moses We were trying to provide--another thing working with images. We thought that intelligence is something you got, you know, is what you're born with, and intellect is the society, the structure, the erector set of this society and the intellect of a society are the mores and values that pass down from generation to generation, and what we wanted to do was have a hand in building the intellect of any town we walked into, that is, because we can't do anything with the intelligence which we fortunately knew about at the beginning. [laughter] Because intelligence is something else. And, so, when we did "In White America", what we were working with were historical images. We wanted to have, we wanted to provide an emotional frame of reference for the movement, in the sense saying that this struggle, as most of us think that, you know, we're the only ones that are--well, this is the largest mass movement that has happened in the United States since we were brought here. But there's a conception that we were, that the other--in other words, the older generation had their own battle. The generation before them fought it in whatever the way they could, and that play, "In White America", shows that and that the movement has been--is the culmination, let's say, and there's going to be another movement also, you know, of a long process struggle. And I think for the most part besides the improvisations in which the people themselves did, "In White America" was the most effective play. I wanted to also say that in Bogalusa, I just wanted to relate one incident. In Bogalusa, when we arrived there one Saturday night, four of--three of our people were picked up by the police. They were going home, they were picked up, there was one white, two whites and one Negro, and they were interrogated for around four hours and then let out very early in the morning without the car that they had driven, which was, by the way, the same former for the Schwerner-Chaney murder. Yeah. And they didn't know where they were. They were told to get on out and go home. And as they left the place, they saw cars passing, the police car passed them back and forth, watching them. And then other cars came. And what they had to do was hide in the bushes until one guy crawled on his knees to a white person's house, sneaked in the back, used the telephone, was caught using the telephone and told a lie, saying that his car was, he put on a Southern accent, that his car had broken down and such and such and they called me, and I was staying at the home of the president of the deacons at that time, and we went and drove along the roads and whistled and everything until they came out of the bushes. There were a lot of, not a lot of, but very similar incidents, incidences, for instance when we first did "In White America", in Indianola, about 25 members of the White Citizens Council came to see us, and they were guarded by 40 policemen. This is a performance that we thought we were going to be dead afterwards, you see. I went and asked the the cop [laughter] what they were doing there and they were there to protect the white citizens [laughter] [unintelligible].

Studs Terkel Now, this is the humor you were talking about earlier, yeah.

Gilbert Moses Yeah, well, it was humor and we thought we would die. It was one of the best performances we ever gave. This is, you asked me

Studs Terkel Yes. Yes. Experiences. As you might say, this is another way of saying, an American theatrical touring company and its experiences. We hear a great deal about touring company when actors come up on programs, and what were your experiences in the various cities you've been? Well, we heard part of the experiences of the touring company known as the Free Southern Theater. Gilbert Moses, our guest. Thank you very much.

Gilbert Moses Thank you.