Nathan Louis Jackson, playwright and screenwriter (Broke-Ology, When I Come to Die), died on Aug. 22. He was 44. He is survived by his wife, Megan Mascorro-Jackson, two children, Amaya and Savion Jackson, his mother Bessie Jackson, and siblings Ebony Maddox and Wardell Jackson.
When Nathan Jackson arrived at Kansas City Repertory Theatre in 2013 to begin the first of his two residencies with us, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, we had no idea of the friend and talent we were about to know, treasure, and love. I remember thinking at first, Oh dear, he’s so quiet—so shy. While it’s true that Nathan was one of the most relaxed human beings I have ever encountered inside a theatre, it turns out he was not quiet, and he was not shy. He was loquacious, full of energy, opinions, stories, and jokes—damned chatty he was. And he liked to go visiting, like my grandparents after church on Sundays, from office to office, sharing wisdom in the guise of shooting the shit, and shooting the shit in the guise of deep thoughts. He was also accomplishing a to-do list known only to him—a workshop plan, or a play to read. We relished our Nathan nuggets, the countless bright perceptions and detailed anecdotes. He was often joined by his daughter, Amaya, in a tutu, or Savion, his son, with his stuffed monkey. Nathan as a dad was a role he was born to play.
He grew up in Kansas City, Kans., in the Quindaro neighborhood. From Washington High School, he moved on to Kansas City Kansas Community College and then Kansas State, in the “Little Apple” of Manhattan, Kans. His play The Last Black Play, produced by the school’s legendary Ebony Theatre, of which Nathan was an artistic leader, was presented at the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival. Nathan also lived out loud in forensics (the speech team). The forensics monologue selection for Black actors was limited, so he began to write monologues for himself and others, garnering enthusiastic approval for scenes drawn from his own life. According to K-State friends, he was a talented, quick-witted actor and a wildly skilled improviser.
The phone call letting him know he had been accepted into the playwriting program at Juilliard came, as he famously recounted, while he was putting ribs in the smoker at the BBQ restaurant where he was working. He and Megan, his wonderful wife and a top-tier librarian, packed up baby Amaya, headed to NYC, and dove into the life of a professional playwright.
Among his awards were the Lorraine Hansberry Award (twice), the Kennedy Center’s Gold Medallion, and the Mark Twain Comedy Playwriting Award. His plays were performed and celebrated nationally. He also wrote and produced for television, most notably for Luke Cage, 13 Reasons Why, Shameless, Genius, and S.W.A.T.
During his time at KCRep as our playwright-in-residence, we produced four of his works: Broke-ology, When I Come To Die, and the world premieres Sticky Traps and Brother Toad. We were fortunate that Nathan and Megan triumphed in L.A. and NYC, but also left a trail of bread crumbs, or maybe burnt ends, and found their way home.
Included in his engagement adventures, he hosted, with contagious revelry, open mic nights—free-for-all readings of 10 pages or less contributed by playwrights and read cold by actors. The evenings were packed. As Marissa Wolf, then KCRep’s New Works Director, now artistic director at Portland Center Stage, remembers, “Collaborating with Nathan was an utter joy. He’s one of the most generous playwrights I’ve ever met—to focus his time and energy on lifting playwright voices around him.”
Nathan visited and worked with many students at schools and juvenile detention education centers all over the city, including his work with KCUR, our NPR station, on their project, The Argument, nurturing creative writing about the causes and consequences of gun violence, in conjunction with his play, Brother Toad. As he told KCUR reporter Laura Ziegler about the young writers, “I want to tell them it’s okay to stand out. All of us artists have been in that world and we may be a little weird, but that weirdness is going to take us to another level. It’s cool to be weird, weird is awesome. If there’s anything I want these kids to learn, it’s that I want them to want to be the one who stands out…’There’s something up with that guy.’”
Close to 2,700 high school students, many from the KCK district, saw his plays at student matinees. In Broke-ology, they saw a Black KCK family on stage. Marked by lively talkbacks with Nathan and the actors, these were memorable mornings, as characters in all of his plays navigate conflicts and decisions that may limit or unleash dreams. They were memorable mornings for Nathan as well. He was invested in the writers of tomorrow, and, as he often noted, the audiences of tomorrow. A teacher wrote me last week, “What a brilliant voice and beautiful soul. It was an honor to take kids to experience and discuss his plays.” KC kids loved him.
“Write what you know” is common advice. Nathan’s writing revealed that when an exceptional playwright inspires in this way, we can become known to ourselves and each other. His plays explore themes of family dynamics, racism, homophobia, violence, the death penalty, the intricacies of home, Black joy, and, sometimes, spirituality and religion and their impact on all of the above. And there are always moments, scenes, and conversations that are hilarious. Like Nathan.
A bright highlight of Nathan’s work in the Big Apple was the production of Broke-ology at Lincoln Center, directed by Thomas Kail, with Wendell Pierce in the role of William King—a character based on Nathan’s father—in a home inhabited by a family like his own. KCK, in Wyandotte County, separated from Kansas City, Mo., by a street, is a city often maligned and misunderstood, portrayed in the most negative and racist of frames. This was also the play of Nathan’s that KCRep first produced. For our audiences, predominantly white patrons of a predominantly white institution, the play boldly showed them their neighbors and offered them a rich and generous slice of life look at Black life; families they probably never thought about yet so much like their own, living in a complex, loving, and tight-knit community. This play brings to vibrant life the King family, just blocks away from you, whether you know it or not, as they share their socioeconomic, cultural, and racial realities alongside the love, laughter, choices, arguments, and struggles that echo from all families everywhere. To share the connections, Nathan knew it was crucial to share the differences. And it was not a small moment in our history. Lamenting the lack of diversity among theatregoers, Nathan had a prescription: “Talk to each other.”
Nathan’s plays examine essential local dialogues, while revealing the universal scope of the conversation. Nathan showed us ourselves, either by reflection or illumination of something we have never seen, or has been erased. His absolute authenticity as a storyteller and a human being seduced us and unveiled us to ourselves. Our audiences loved him. As a friend and collaborator, he wrapped us in the calm of his unique kindness, delivered with that zillion-dollar smile and a notably irreverent and charmingly soft burst of laughter—always smart, and often mischievous in origin.
We at KCRep, and the many individuals across the country who loved him, are enriched by having known Nathan and we share the sorrow of his loss. He wore his warm heart and soul braided with his wicked wit, singular talent, and genuine self. He played an immense role in the history, artistry, and growth of our company. He was a patient well of wisdom, a KC fountain of weird (in the best way), and a maker of words that played well and live on. There was something up with that guy.
Melinda McCrary is director of education and community programs for Kansas City Repertory Theatre.
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