It's a rare person who can make a full-time living as a playwright in Kansas City. Nathan Louis Jackson is such a person. His gig as playwright-in-residence at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre was recently renewed.
Jackson grew up in Kansas City, Kansas. He went to Los Angeles to work in television and studied at the Julliard School of Performing Arts in New York City. But he eventually came home, and his deep roots in the community are one reason the Mellon Foundation funds his writing gig here, Jackson said when the extension of his residency was announced last month.
One of his goals is to increase diversity in the theater, a mission reinforced by his experience in New York.
When he studied at Julliard, Jackson and his wife settled into a neighborhood that was predominantly black and Dominican. Riding the trains, he saw a mix of people everywhere.
"It is a very diverse city," he says. "When I went to the theater, I did not see that. What I saw was (people who were) predominantly white, older, with a little money in their pockets."
When Jackson's plays were produced at Lincoln Center, this audience reacted to some of his writing in ways that surprised him, such as in Broke-ology, where one of the black characters enters with a string of curse words.
"Which theater audiences shouldn’t care about if they love Mamet and several other playwrights who use curse words," Jackson notes. "It shouldn’t be a problem."
In previews, when the audience consisted of younger, more diverse people the producers had invited, they understood the character and thought he was funny. But when the play began its run for season ticket holders — that older, white audience — Jackson could see his audience tense up.
"Oof. The energy just sucked out the room when he came in, and you could tell they kind of wrote him off. For the rest of the play there seemed to be this distance."
"I still believe there is a fear sometimes of African-American men," Jackson says. "Having this guy come out cursing all of a sudden set them off. We took a couple curse words out, and it didn't come off as harsh, and they were able to settle into him."
The actor was furious, but Jackson believes he didn't lose any of the play's meaning, and he gained a connection.
"This is the audience I have to communicate with, communicate to. I don’t want to have to change my work based on who I’m perceiving will come to my show. That being said, I’m not writing this play for myself. I'm writing for an audience."
That audience needs to be more diverse not just in New York but all across the country, he says.
"It’s not just about having people come to us. How can we go out into the community? How can we be a part of the community? And we’re talking about communities who have been silent, people haven’t listened to them."
Listening in class
On a recent Wednesday afternoon at the Paseo Academy of Fine and Performing Arts, Jackson pays a visit to Chris Odam’s creative writing class.
"Who are my poets here?" he begins.
A few students raise their hands, and Jackson acknowledges them.
"Poetry writers. Who writes short stories? Novels? Playwrights? Any screenwriters? Anybody try to hit a little screenwriting, chasing those dollars?"
Jackson can talk about all of these kinds of writing – and he does, in a conversation he punctuates with YouTube videos of Hamilton composer Lin-Manual Miranda performing at the White House and trailers for TV shows he's worked on such as Resurrection.
A familiar background
What seems unnecessary for Jackson to talk about with these young writers is where he came from.
Growing up in Wyandotte County, Jackson went to Argentine Middle School and Washington High School, where he realized his height (5' 8") and lack of athletic talent made his plans for a career in basketball unrealistic.
Jackson found his calling in forensics, when his teacher convinced him he was good enough to compete in speech and debate tournaments, where he sometimes won.
"We’d come in in the morning after the tournament and they’d announce your name like they did for football and basketball players," Jackson tells KCUR. "But this was ‘Hey, Nate Jackson won first place in interp' or whatever. That was always good for me. I needed that growing up."
That was his first exposure to performance. He went on to Kansas City, Kansas, Community College and then to Kansas State University, where the student-run Ebony Theatre produces work by African-American playwrights.
But living in Manhattan, Kansas was an adjustment.
"At parties, I can’t tell you how many times some intoxicated person would come up to me and say, 'What team do you play for?' I'd say, 'I’m an actor. Seriously.' People just assume when they met a black guy he plays sports. I had great fun getting rid of people’s stereotypes and learning for myself that not everyone is like I’ve been taught. I thought, let me learn for myself. God gave me a brain and a conscience. I can figure this out."
Playwrights of tomorrow
Back at Paseo, Jackson asks if the young creative writers have any questions.
Keylisha Nelson, a senior, asks where he draws his inspiration. Specifically, she asks if he's seen The Colored Museum, by George C. Wolfe.
This gets a strong reaction from Jackson.
"Oh! Girl! Oh!" he says, and the class laughs.
"It was the first play I ever read, ever, in my life," Jackson says. "And I've probably done a monologue from that thing a thousand different times."
After class, Nelson tells KCUR that talking with Jackson gave her confidence that it’s OK to be inspired by other playwrights.
"It’s really about connection and following after other people’s work and allowing it to influence you," she says. "I’m a poet and I draw from other poets and history, and I'm currently seeking guidance like that."
"Because I’m interested in screen writing too and also interested in doing television shows and movies," Robertson says. "I eventually plan to become a film director myself."
If that happens, then Jackson’s day has been a success. He’s made enough visits to high schools to know that not all of these kids will go to the theater.
"So," he says, "you ask them, 'What about television? Is there anything on television that speaks to you, tells your story? What’s the closest thing?'"
When they say "Empire," Jackson thinks to himself: "You don’t have anything, do you? Because none of you guys are living like ‘Empire.’ None a y’all."
His message to high school kids all over Kansas City: You need to be able to tell your story.
If Jackson can keep inspiring students to do that, then the theater can’t help but get more diverse.
C.J. Janovy is an arts reporter for KCUR 89.3. You can find her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.
Nathan Louis Jackson gives a free reading of his latest script-in-process at 7 p.m. on Monday, February 15, in the Spencer Theatre Lounge at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre, 4949 Cherry St., Kansas City, Missouri, 64110, 816-235-2700.