New Orleans, La. –
A new play from the local nonprofit Junebug Productions is called "Trying to Find My Way Back Home," and it's ostensibly about the story of modern Haiti, the struggles of everyday people there and the way this relates to the African American experience closer to home. Deeper though, this play, staged at the Ash Cultural Arts Center in Central City, takes on themes of brotherhood, the power of community and, ultimately, love. Actor Kwame Ross explains:
"It's really about the love of self, the love of culture, the love of principle, the love of values, the love of finding yourself and finding what home is," he says.
"Trying to Find My Way Back Home" takes on all this with just two performers, Jamal Chaston being the other. That might sound like a tall order, but that's the way things often go at Junebug Productions, a theater company whose work is intended specifically to encourage and support African Americans in the South.
"We were part of the Civil Rights Movement, we were born out of the Civil Rights movement," says Junebug founder John O'Neal.
He says this New Orleans nonprofit is the successor organization to the Free Southern Theater, a Civil Rights cultural group that he also helped lead from its start back in 1963. Its mission, which Junebug carries on, was to be "a theater for those who have no theater."
"We thought, if we had theater that was addressed to oppressed and exploited people in the black belt South, it would get to the things that are important to most people in the world," he says. "We have a little rule that goes, the heavier the thing you're concerned about, the lighter must be your touch. And so let that weighty thing come up, less it falls like a lead balloon."
In addition to its own productions, Junebug also partners with national touring artists and companies to bring their work into the city's neighborhoods and to open doors for collaboration with local talent. O'Neal says Junebug's experience has shown that such productions don't need elaborate sets or large casts to get their messages out memorably and meaningfully.
"We're a poor, a very poor theater. And, so, we have to find ways to make a lot out of a little," O'Neal says. "And so that means, one of the most vital materials that we have to work with is the imagination of the audience. We invest in people who can figure out how to access that imagination that the audience brings to the experience."
For Kwame Ross, the experience of the play "Trying to Find My Way Back Home," with its two-person cast but its far-reaching themes, speaks to this intimacy and magnetism of the theater, qualities that persist even as modern day distractions multiply.
"It's healing. I mean, Shakespeare spoke about the idea of making the theater as a way of healing the community, healing the society, bringing the stuff out," he says. "You know, that is vitally important that people have a place to experience it. I mean, you can't turn it off, right?"