Claude Jackson Jr. has been surrounded by strong women his entire life. Their strength encompassed him even as a child, when he was guided by his Mexican grandmother and especially his mother, who supported her three sons, including young Claude, while caring for his alcoholic father. Despite those trying circumstances, her strength did not waver. She mustered the brute force required to hold her family together, despite the demons that threatened to tear them apart.
“I’ve always noticed the nobility of my mom and her mom, my grandmother, and I remember what they did to carry on in spite of all that,” said Jackson Jr., 50, an attorney and self-described hobby playwright who has seen the events of the past 10 years push him further into writing. This second career co-exists with a demanding day job as the director of his tribe’s public defender’s office.
His burgeoning writing career has earned him a major world premiere in the Bay Area, produced by San Francisco Playhouse and scheduled to open Feb. 1. Cashed Out shares the experiences of three generations of women living on the Gila River Indian Community Reservation in Arizona, Jackson Jr.’s home state. The play tells the story of Rocky, a woman battling a gambling addiction while struggling to preserve the traditions of her Native culture. Rocky represents the second of three generations of women who have worked to instill cultural appreciation in their daughters’ minds, while facing the disappointment of relatives like Auntie Nan.
Cashed Out debuted as a 10-minute play in 2019, when it won the Von Marie Atchley Excellence in Playwriting Award at the Native Voices at the Autry short play festival. The play received further development as part of the Playhouse’s Zoomlet series in 2020. That reading led Playhouse co-founder and artistic director Bill English to offer Jackson Jr. a commission from the company, giving him his biggest theatre career opportunity yet.
Popular culture tends to portray gambling as a masculine vice, rarely acknowledging women’s struggles with the activity. In a 2021 Vulture story listing “The 26 Best Movies About Gambling,” only one film, 2017’s Molly’s Game, centers a female character. In making the bold choice to write a play about a woman’s gambling addiction and its effects on the other women in her family, Jackson Jr. has forced audiences to adjust their preconceptions about addiction.
“I could have easily made Rocky a man and it would have shown him dealing with a son or a daughter,” said Jackson Jr., “but I was just really dedicated to what these women were about.”
Rainbow Dickerson, who took part in the Zoomlet reading, found a deep kinship with Rocky in all her beauty and imperfections. Because Dickerson has lived with her character for some time now, behavior that could be conceived as morally ambiguous by the audience has a level of clarity for Dickerson, who identifies as Thai and Rappahannock.
“I can see and understand the reasons behind her decisions and the motivating factors, where that comes from, and I think the audience is going to have a hard time trying to decide if they want to have empathy for her,” said Dickerson. “I do think there is a little bit of a responsibility to show that addiction comes from somewhere. It’s an illness that is fueled by a lot of different motivating factors and that doesn’t necessarily mean someone is morally bad, or even hopeless, or did something wrong.”
Jackson Jr.’s narrative accentuates the paradox between the recent history of Indian gaming—the first Indian casino was built in Florida in 1979—and Native traditions such as basket weaving, which have been part of the world for many thousands of years. The cast and creative team of Cashed Out even practiced the art of basket weaving with instructor Jacqueline Zillioux from Huhugam Heritage Center to ensure that their onstage weaving was authentic.
Director Tara Moses, a citizen of the Seminole nation of Oklahoma, Mvskoke, and herself a bead worker, was deeply drawn into the story’s specificity, which offers some unique challenges for a Native director.
“I think the biggest challenge is the personal connections that every single Native artist in the room, myself included, have to this story,” said Moses. “As a director, I’m always cognizant of the fact that we cannot pull from personal inventory. I’m very much about how we can make performing difficult material sustainable, especially with Native theatre. So much of our work involves intergenerational trauma or ongoing genocide, and things are very real for us. Every single one of us in the rehearsal room has multiple connections to the themes, challenges, and the harsh realities of this play.”
What drove Jackson Jr. to delve deeper into these harsh realities has so much to do with his experience of family. He spent lots of time crafting characters that fascinate him, spurred by the women who participated in the various readings and workshops his play went through. In Dickerson’s view, this is what makes the play special.
“If I’m quite honest, I never really sat down and ever questioned the fact that it was a male-identifying person that wrote the story,” said Dickerson. “From the get-go, the characters were just multifaceted, multi-dimensional, well-rounded characters. I love the fact that it is a true character-driven story. He has a respect for the women in his play and a respect for the characters he’s crafted. How he did that, I don’t know. I also love that Natives are allowed to be funny and not just stoic, so that’s a big thing. I’ve had so many talks with BIPOC artists about their desire to just put things out that are joyful.”
The character of Rocky finds joy in celebrating her victories, but they come at a cost. The duality of euphoria and pain that gambling can bring is not lost on Jackson, Jr., who knows he is working in polarizing territory. He himself has seen great things come from the funds that Indian gaming has provided. His undergraduate education and law degree, for example, would not have been possible without gaming revenues. Pursuing an education would have certainly meant taking on high volumes of debt without this critical funding.
“Any of our government programs are almost a direct reflection of what we have made throughout the casino,” said Jackson Jr. “The Rocky character is addicted to gambling, but Nan is a councilmember, a traditional person that sees the positives of gaming in a progressive light. When I first had the kernels of this play, I wanted to make sure that was part of it.”
Jackson Jr.’s play covers a lot of ground, tackling multiple critical issues that are specific to a life on a reservation. It’s robust material that a director like Moses loves exploring.
“Claude’s play does a great job showcasing people who, despite all the challenges, love the opportunities that are on a reservation,” said Moses. “By the end of the play, these Native folks are thriving. That’s a wonderful thing that Claude brings that audiences don’t ever get to see.”
Dickerson concurs with that assessment. What greatly excites her about the increased opportunities for Indigenous storytelling is the chance to tell more stories that center bliss.
“I was saying at an event last year that I’m ready to kind of end the suffering Olympics,” said Dickerson. “It’s time for joyful stories and stories of hope. Not everything has to be an uphill battle. We tend to think humanity idolizes the underdog and the struggle. We find great value and merit in that, but almost a little bit too much. It is possible for things to just go well. How you meet that strife can also be done in a joyful way.”
David John Chávez is a Bay Area theatre journalist and chair of the American Theatre Critics Association. He is an alumnus of the 2020 Eugene O’Neill Theater Center National Critics Institute and was a juror for the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for drama. Twitter/Mastodon: @davidjchavez
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