Junebug is the creation of actor John O'Neal, the star and only performer in Don't Start Me to Talkin' or I'll Tell You Everything I Know: Sayings From the Life and Writings of Junebug Jabbo Jones. The show was performed last night and is to play again at the Painted Bride tonight.
The show's title is catchy, as well as a mouthful of words, and on both counts appropriate to Junebug. He is interesting and loquacious. This fellow tells a mean story.
Junebug tells us he comes from a long line of storytellers. The first Junebug, he says, learned the craft of storytelling in the days of slavery when he went around telling stories to fellow slaves as a way of keeping up spirits and fueling the yearning for freedom.
That, Junebug says, is what he is still doing today - telling stories with a point to further the cause of social justice. "There's a heap of difference between a storyteller and liar," Junebug says. The difference is that a liar makes something up for his own benefit, and a storyteller makes up something to benefit everyone.
Junebug's stories might be made up, but they certainly have the ring of truth. He tells about picking cotton in his native Mississippi and confronting the white boss who short-weights him. He relates a tale about leaving home, going to New Orleans and getting thrown in jail for sitting at a white lunch counter.
He gets a job shining shoes in a fancy hotel and deliberately throws it away to get even with a white customer who demeans him. He goes back to his childhood for a story of sacrifice among his teenage friends.
Perhaps the most pointed story he tells is the one about his father and the mule he named Senator Bilbo, after a Southern politician. Senator Bilbo was so ornery, Junebug tells us, "it fell down dead standing up." When his daddy took the critter to town, it would stop in the middle of Main Street and refuse to move. So Junebug's daddy would have to curse and whip the ol' mule right there in public.
O'Neal's stories are quite good, but what makes this show so fascinating is his delivery. An excellent actor, he captures the folksiness, humor and earthy wisdom of Junebug and plays the other roles in the story - including the mule - as well.
He has a real gift for striking up an easy rapport with an audience. You don't have to be in the theater very long to feel you are friends with this engaging character.
Junebug's dialect and soft, throaty manner of speaking sometimes makes it difficult to hear what O'Neal is saying. A theatergoer also might get the feeling at times that he is more in the presence of a consummate performer playing Junebug Jabbo Jones rather than observing the true article, but those are quibbles.
Junebug might tell us everything he knows, but when he is finished, we wish he had more to say.