Playwright Nathan Louis Jackson: From Smoking Ribs To Scripting 'Luke Cage'

Dec 19, 2016

"Growing up, I thought I lived in like a black city," says Nathan Louis Jackson, who spent his childhood and early adulthood in the Quindaro neighborhood in Kansas City, Kansas. "I didn't understand the makeup of this city. And not just that, it wasn't just a racial makeup, it was also economic. All that, I didn't get. I was in a little bubble."

The writer-in-residence at the Kansas City Repertory Theater has had a shift in perception since returning to town after stints in New York and Los Angeles, where he attended Juilliard and wrote for television respectively. Now, when he goes to Chiefs games or theatrical productions here in town, he sees crowds that don't resemble the community he grow up in.

"Looking at the people who support this city, it doesn't look like what I thought it looked like growing up."

But the city he grew up in, the one he thought was a black city, does inform his writing for the Netflix/Marvel series Luke Cage, about an African-American superhero with unbreakable, bulletproof skin, an activist's sense of social justice and a hoodie where the once-ubiquitous cape might have been

By the way, Jackson applauds the hoodie for being a comfortable garment that keeps heads warm, and rejects the notion that this fashion choice should be politicized when young African-American men wear it.

"There are some similarities, even though Luke Cage isn't in Kansas City. He is in Harlem, he is in a predominantly black neighborhood, which is where I grew up. There are some similarities there."

Luke's character also works in a restaurant. That's what Jackson did to make ends meet before his writing career took off. To give the experience a particularly Kansas City flavor, it's important to know he worked specifically in a barbecue joint.

Nathan Louis Jackson at work at the Kansas City Repertory Theater.
Credit Paul Andrews / paulandrewsphotography.com

And at a certain point, Jackson thought that restaurant jobs might be his lifelong vocation, because the writing thing wasn't working out. 

"It was like being in a little box ... and just watching the world kind of go by. I had friends in New York and they'd be doing things and I'd be stuck in my little box,  smoking ribs and scooping out cornbread mix," he recalls. "It would take me so long to get ready for work, and then I'd get off and I would smell like food and I'd be covered in food. My wife would tell me to put my clothes in a bag and then shower. I'd spend eight hours at work, I'd spend another two hours coming down from that or getting ready for that, and I had no time to write. All the energy was sucked out of me."

What he didn't entirely appreciate at the time was all the material he got working that job, from the people he met to the life situations he experienced. And he was on the job when he got a call that he was in the final round of candidates for a theater program at Juilliard. At the time, his wife was pregnant. Due any day, in fact. So when he explained that he wouldn't be able to pick up and leave town for an interview, he assumed that was the end of that.

He was wrong.

"I was just getting ready to put some ribs in the smoker and they called me and told me I was in. I did like a lap around the restaurant I was so happy," he says.

But moving a brand new family to New York City once the baby arrived wasn't easy.

"We had no money," he recalls. "We didn't have great credit. Apparently you need money and credit to get an apartment."

After almost a week of apartment hunting, he was prepared to send his wife and child back to Kansas City because he feared they were staring down imminent homelessness. On the last day of searching before that would have been a reality, he took a long subway ride to go on the last chance apartment tour before the end of the day on Friday. He remembers that his wife and baby fell asleep on one side of him, and his brother, who planned to move along with them, fell asleep on the other shoulder.

"All these people were just leaning on me, and I was like, 'I've just ruined all these people's lives on this little dream I have.'"

But in the last hours of the last day of that one week he had to find an apartment, he got one. 

And everything took off from there.

Since returning to Kansas City, a lot has changed, including his perception of Kansas City.

Quindaro, where he grew up, is different, though he takes issue when people say it's in ruins.

"There's still a lot of people that live there. It's not as if it is a ghost town. I have lots of family that still live there. Are there less houses? There was a house here that my buddy used to live in and now it's just an empty lot and do we see several like that?" he asks. "Yes. Are the businesses there still alive and vital? No. That's an issue, too."

He talks about the statue of abolitionist John Brown, and the campus of what was once an all-black university.

"All that's there," he says. "It's a very important part of the history not just of this community but the history of this city, the history of this nation, that's all still there. I don't want to say ruins. It's not dead, but it's not what it used to be when I grew up there, and I don't think it's what it could be."

Nathan Louis Jackson has a simple solution to racial divisions: go meet people and talk to them.
Credit Paul Andrews / paulandrewsphotography.com

Like a lot of Kansas Citians, he wishes we could get past the racial divide on Troost Avenue.

But how?

He uses his own experience with the band Journey as an example.

"I remember growing up and listening in my car, I had a terrible raggedy little blue Ford Festiva, and I would roll the windows up when I would listen to certain kinds of music, like Journey, I got a Journey CD, I was like, 'Yo, Steve Perry is killin' it right now! I love this!' and I remember listening to it with the windows up because I can't have my boys hearing me rocking out to Steve Perry, though. And then I met other black people who were like, 'Yo, I love Journey, too.' And then I would meet white folks who were like, 'You love Journey?' And I'd be like, 'I love Journey. You love Digital Underground? What? You're white though.'"

He advises that anyone wanting to overcome racial divides go out and meet people face to face. 

"And not just like one person. I hear people say, 'I have a black friend.' Well, you have one black friend. I don't know who that one dude is and he probably isn't a great representation of everyone. I'm not a great representation of the whole African-American community. In order to understand the African-American community, you need a larger sample size."

Portrait Sessions are intimate conversations with some of the most interesting people in Kansas City. Each conversational portrait is paired with photographic portraits by Paul Andrews

Gina Kaufmann is the host of Central Standard. You can reach her on Twitter.