May 20, 2019

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John O’Neal, 78, Champion of Theater in the Deep South, Dies

John O’Neal, 78, Champion of Theater in the Deep South, Dies
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Mr. O’Neal liked to collaborate with other writers and theater groups to create multicultural works, as he did on “Promise of a Love Song,” which interwove three love stories from different cultures and was a joint effort by Junebug, Roadside Theater of Appalachia and Pregones Theater, a Puerto Rican company based in the Bronx.

He was perhaps best known for a character he created and performed in a series of one-man plays: Junebug Jabbo Jones, a mythical sort of griot who, speaking in southwestern Mississippi dialect, told homespun stories full of humor and universal wisdom. He introduced the character in 1980 in “Don’t Start Me Talkin’ or I’ll Tell Everything I Know: Sayings From the Life and Writings of Junebug Jabbo Jones,” and he performed the Junebug plays all over the country, including several times in New York.

“I am a storyteller,” Junebug says in one incarnation. “Storyteller. I say ‘storyteller’ instead of ‘liar’ because there’s a heap of difference between a storyteller and a liar. A liar, that’s somebody who will take and cover things over, mainly for his own private benefit. But your storyteller, now, that’s somebody who’ll take and uncover things, so everybody can get some good out of it.”

Mr. O’Neal’s first marriage, to Mary Felice Lovelace, ended in divorce, as did his second, to Marilyn Norton. In addition to his daughter, a child of his second marriage, he is survived by his wife, Bertha McNealy O’Neal; a son from his second marriage, William; a brother, Wendell; a sister, Pamela O’Neal Moody; a stepson, Arnold Regas; seven grandchildren; and a great-grandchild.

In the documentary, Mr. O’Neal recalled telling his father early on that he intended to be a playwright. His father, he said, expressed skepticism that he could make a living that way.

“I said, ‘I don’t intend to work for a living,’ ” he recalled. “ ‘I intend to live for my work.’ ”

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