Kansas city is a vibrant theatre town, but it’s hard to find big-name plays and musicals set in this dual-city metropolis. The wealthy suburbs provide a home for ABC Family’s current teen drama Switched at Birth, and “Kansas City” is a song in the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Oklahoma! That’s something. But neither of those works feel truly local. Playwright and native Kansan Nathan Louis Jackson is out to change all that.
Jackson, author of the award-winning, Kansas City, Kans.–based Broke-ology, is back on his home turf and starting a three-year residency at Kansas City Repertory Theatre in Missouri. When his colleagues talk about him, they pair terms like “hilarious” and “heavy” in the same sentence. But they ultimately return to the idea that Jackson is, as KC Rep’s associate artistic director Kyle Hatley puts it, “one of the most important new voices of the American theatre.”
Jackson always seems to come back to Kansas City, both in his life and in his plays. He grew up in the Quindaro neighborhood—a poor, run-down community just across the Missouri River. (To clear up any confusion, Kansas City straddles two states. The Kansas side is not way out in the wheat fields; it’s right next door to the Missouri side.) Jackson lived in School District 500, where he attended Washington High School. His mother has lived in the same house for years, and his wife’s family lives not too far away in Hutchinson. Jackson went to Kansas State University in Manhattan, Mo.—the “Little Apple”—and studied environmental science until he got his first taste of theatre performing with the school’s speech and debate team.
“I realized a long time ago that there’s a limited number of monologues specifically for African-American performers,” Jackson says. “After you dispense with August Wilson, Raisin in the Sun and a couple of others, you’re kind of scraping. I was like, ‘If I’m going to perform, I’m going to write my own stuff.’” Jackson was competing against other teams in Kansas and out-of-state in places like Nebraska. “Guaranteed, I would be the only brother in the room.”
When I Come to Die, running at KC Rep Feb. 14–March 16, started as a forensics piece for a friend, who Jackson said “butchered” it in performance at finals. “Speech and debate—it’s not acting, but every week we got to go out and perform,” Jackson says. “It was big for me. It was a lot of writing.”
The concept for the piece came from conversations with Jackson’s cousin, who had served time in a penitentiary. “This guy had a lot of great stories, but he never told them because of the situation he was in,” Jackson says. As a playwright, Jackson aims to tell the unheard tales of his own community and other overlooked segments of the population—to capture Kansas City the way August Wilson encapsulated Pittsburgh. “How many people have great stories, but because they’re not in the position to tell them or they don’t have the venue, they never get told? Those are the stories that I appreciate—those new stories, the stories that if I don’t tell them, they’re not getting told.”
When I Come to Die begins after a man on death row survives a lethal injection. For an audience, this requires some suspended disbelief, as executions are rarely botched these days. But while jarring, the setup of the play isn’t as important as the message it conveys.
“It’s not just about a prison of solid walls—it’s about a prison of one man’s mistakes and what he can do to free himself, to redeem himself and find his humanity,” says Hatley, who is directing When I Come to Die at the Rep. “Your mind and your heart can create the thickest walls, and in the case of Damon [the main character], he’s lucky enough to have a second chance to realize that.”
In preparation for the Rep production, Jackson and Hatley spent a day this past December at Lansing Correctional Facility in Kansas. More than just a chance to research, the visit was an opportunity for outreach with the inmates and prison personnel.
“Nathan has a way of understanding people who are rarely understood, whether it’s a poor family in Broke-ology, or several men on death row in When I Come to Die,” Hatley adds. “He has a way of asking questions that are incredibly important and very urgent to the time in which we live.”
The road out of Kansas city and back has been a winding, eventful one. After college, Jackson spent some time working at a local chain barbecue restaurant. He then applied to Juilliard, got in, welcomed his daughter into the world, moved to New York, premiered Broke-ology and When I Come to Die at Lincoln Center Theater, started working in television in Los Angeles and had his second child. His life sounds like the American Dream of playwriting. But he remembers when it “was a big idea to work at the Rep” in Kansas City.
“It’s different when you do a show in New York, and you’re part of that theatre for two months, and then you’re not anymore,” Jackson says. “This residency at KC Rep feels like you’re part of the family and not just kicked out after the show is done.”
Hatley and Jackson first came together with the Rep’s artistic director Eric Rosen when the theatre decided to produce Broke-ology in 2010. The play is set in “KCK”—a local shorthand for Kansas City, Kans. (Kansas City, Mo., is abbreviated as “KCMO”)—and is closely based on Jackson’s own family life. Broke-ology follows two brothers who return to their childhood home to take care of their father, who suffers from multiple sclerosis. (Jackson’s own father passed away from the disease in 2001.) In the play, the older son is back from grad school but is itching to move out and kick-start his career, while the younger son has remained at home and is struggling to make ends meet. Hatley directed the Rep production.
“The title immediately grabbed me. I could not stop turning the pages. I read it in one sitting, quicker than I’ve read any play, and immediately began reading it again,” Hatley recalls. “I had a profound emotional reaction to it. It felt like my family, it felt like every family I knew, and it felt like this writer understood how human beings talk, how human beings make mistakes, and how human beings try to overcome those mistakes.”
Rosen talks about Jackson’s current residency as an extension of the ongoing dialogue the playwright had already formed with the Rep since its production of Broke-ology, and a couple of subsequent readings of Jackson’s in-progress works. When the theatre put on Broke-ology, Rosen says, a “fractured” Kansas City came together. The mayor of Kansas City, Kans., even proclaimed March 16, 2010, “Nathan Louis Jackson Day.”
“The idea of a returning hero as playwright is so thrilling,” Rosen says. “Instead of returning hero as sports hero, or returning hero as actor, you have a writer being so celebrated and embraced by all different parts of the Kansas City metropolitan area.”
Jackson’s three-year residency with KC Rep kicked off in July 2013 and is supported by a $174,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. As part of the residency, Jackson will write and develop two new plays, to be directed by Hatley. Considered a member of the Rep’s artistic staff for the next three years, Jackson will also contribute to the theatre’s season planning, lead workshops, and participate in educational and outreach activities throughout Kansas City. Rosen says “one of the coolest things” about Jackson’s residency is that he will be able to go into the local community and explore issues that may inform the next play that comes through.
“This residency is a microsmic example of what we’re trying to do at the Rep, of how we are, in a big way, trying to move this city forward,” Rosen says. “If that works, and, if in three years, we’re different because of it, then we will have gotten much more out of the residency than we will have given to Nathan.”
Jackson describes himself as “scatterbrained,” which is why he says he needs an organized director. But the way he talks, it’s more like his head is bursting with so many ideas that it’s hard to talk about just one at a time. They barge in on one another as if fighting to make it onto paper and then onto the stage. Jackson is always on the cusp of a new story.
One new project that’s currently marinating in his head involves Google. In 2011, Google Fiber announced it would roll out its super-fast Internet and TV service in KCK. Jackson is using this idea to examine the “technology gap” in communities. “If you present Google Fiber to a community that doesn’t have computers or e-mail, they’re not able to take advantage of that technology because they’re so far behind in that digital gap—but they’re the ones that really need that new technology to move up,” Jackson says.
Also in the wings are a play based on a Westboro Baptist–like church picketing a funeral, a biopic about comedian Richard Pryor, a story about Robert Johnson, father of the blues (who supposedly sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads), and a possible sports play based on San Diego Chargers linebacker Manti Te’o’s “catfishing” incident. Of the latter, Jackson says he thinks it’s a simpler story: Te’o could be gay. “I’ve learned that the truth normally lies in a straighter line,” he reasons, adding that he has known athletes who were in the closet and wants to use that character type in a play.
And it’s not just plays that are on his mind. Jackson has also visited several Kansas City schools, including his old high school in District 500, to determine their educational needs. He and KC Rep’s educational department are still in the planning stages, but some kind of literacy project is high on Jackson’s list. He also wants to get the inner-city population—with whom he grew up—to see more theatre.
“It’s not like I’m trying to solve a problem that people haven’t been trying to solve for a long time,” he says, “What I want to do is make sure that our audience looks like what the world looks like.”
Jackson has a humble and intuitive, yet also energetic, presence that is hard to pin down. He seems to draw other artists to him like a benign pied piper. Hatley says the next time Jackson has some pages he wants to hear out loud, he knows the actors at KC Rep will be clawing to sit around Rosen’s desk and read.
The only question now is: What will they be reading? Right now, there are too many ideas to count, but “as long as I can keep a foot here in the theatre. I’ll be a happy, happy man,” says Jackson.
Jessica Showers is a news-desk editor and contributor for BroadwayWorld.com. She grew up in the Midwest and currently lives in Kansas City, Mo., with her fiancé.