Yours in the Struggle

April 23, 2020  •  3 minute read

Stephanie McKee speaks at the 2019 National Performance Network Conference.

NPN Board Secretary and Executive Artistic Director of Junebug Productions Stephanie McKee shares wisdom on facing new challenges from legendary activist, theatermaker, and ancestor John Milton O’Neal Jr. at the National Performance Network Conference, Dec. 13, 2019.

The following is a transcript of Stephanie McKee’s remarks. You can also watch them (closed captions available):

As some of you know, on February 14 of 2019, John Milton O’Neal Jr. entered the ancestral realm. He left behind a wife, a daughter, a son, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, many in-laws, and a host of nieces, nephews, relatives, friends. He also left us his legacy of art, organizing, pedagogy, and writing, and a blueprint for Junebug Productions, the organization that he founded in 1980 and where he served as the artistic director until his retirement in 2011.

I was flipping through emails, and I have a lot of emails from John—he liked to write, and long emails, very thoughtful emails. I found an email that I often refer to when I feel like this work is really hard. And I think all of us know how difficult this work is, but it was a reminder to me that this is a place where we’ve all been, as Sunni Patterson would say, we know this place. And to remind us that we know this place and we know how to navigate this because we’re still here.

I’d like to share this letter that John wrote in 2012. People might not know, but Junebug has had many near-death experiences. And this was one of those moments, of—we may have to close the doors to Junebug. So we decided, hey, let’s get out in front of this. Let’s let people know where we are with this, and let’s just own where we are, this isn’t anything new. We had one brave funder who stepped up and said, you know what, I’m not afraid of what this is. This was our letter—this was the letter that John wrote.

Now the movement faces new challenges. We’re in the midst of major yet oh-so-familiar changes that seem familiar, but that we still can’t seem to understand. I feel like one of the clownish tramps circling a barren spot in the road waiting for Godot.

We boast of our woefully inadequate accomplishments, we marvel in ignorant curiosity at things found on the trail so well-traveled by our forebears who left what seem like signs unknown, except that the rhythms that they found in their bones resonate in ours. The dances that they found in their bodies make us wish to dance as they did, with only drums as teachers. The songs that they found in their throats and fingers make us wish to play and to sing the music and the stories which they gifted the world to make the world a more friendly place to be, if only for a moment.

Much that remains unknown is because the artists who will craft the curios into language we can understand still wait for their models and their mentors to arrive. Junebug holds a place in the long, perhaps even infinite, march in search of these stories that can help us find how to survive the pitfalls which threaten all who want to try to march on singing the South African fighting song “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”

John always signed his emails yours in the struggle. What a lot of people don’t know is that became a shorthand for something that was longer. The full statement is, yours in the struggle to make this world a better place for all of us.

Where are you in that struggle? Where will we be in that struggle collectively?

John and so many other people who have crossed on to the ancestral realm have left us a blueprint and an ancestral responsibility to continue to march on. And though this might be hard, I want to remind us that we’re still here. We are still here, after many economies have tanked, we are still here. The artwork that we make matters—it is a reflection of our past, our present, and we, more than anyone else in the world, are able to craft the future that we want and that we see. We are inspiration. We are spirit. We are moving. Are you with me? Are you with me? Are you with me?

I remain yours in the struggle.

Stephanie McKee
NPN Board Secretary
Executive Artistic Director of Junebug Productions

Speaking at the National Performance Network Conference, Dec. 13, 2019