Right now, Nathan Louis Jackson is super-busy. Weekly, he commutes between Los Angeles, for his work as a screenwriter on the popular Netflix web series Luke Cage, then back home to Kansas City, where he’s the play writer in residency with the Kansas City Repertory Theater.
He also racks up even more frequent flyer miles with trips back to New York to reconnect with friends from his Juilliard days and to connect with others in theater and film. Whether he’s on the East coast or West, Jackson says he consistently reminds others he’s a proud product of The Sunflower State.
“I always rep KC,” an excited Jackson relayed over the phone. “Just yesterday I was rocking my Chiefs gear- jacket and jersey. I doubled up on ‘em!”
The class of 1997 Washington High School Wildcat and former 27th and Farrow resident joked that neither he nor his two siblings played outside often because their mother was very protective.
“We used to joke all the time that we could not go outside unless Jesus himself was sitting on the front porch,” Jackson laughed.
But his mother Bessie Jackson, a visual artist, and his father Cary Jackson, who was an appreciator of art, film and television, allowed Nathan and his siblings a different kind of freedom. Nathan was allowed to listen to the uncensored comedy of Richard Pryor whose storytelling he still counts as a big influence. Nathan remembered also being captivated by Jim Henson and Sesame Street and Ernie’s fantasy sequence Imagine That.
“It said to me, ‘hey it’s okay to dream,’”Jackson said. “We didn’t have video games, not really, growing up. It was using your imagination.”
Attending church services and participating in religious activities also gave Nathan a firm foundation as did regularly patronizing Pete’s Barbershop. Black men in Kansas often visited Pete’s and a young Nathan would observe their mannerisms and how they talked to one another. He also liked to watch the on court action of Chicago Bulls’ Michael Jordan, whose “desire to win” was infectious.
Jackson’s current role as a resident play writer at the KC Rep solidly connects him to two of his passions: Kansas and theater.
“I try to add as much as I can,” Jackson said. “The KC Rep Theater has run for years without me. It’ll run long after I’m gone. But while I’m there let me see what I can do to add to its meaning.”
Marissa Wolf, director of New Works at Kansas City Rep Theater says that Jackson’s plays have incredible balance and are funny and very human. She also feels that he represents his Kansas background well.
“I love that Nathan is so thoughtful about voicing his own perspective,” Wolf said. “He’s definitely the kind of person and artist who is dedicated to giving back and engaging the community.”
Last year the Kansas City Rep was awarded a $232,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon foundation to extend the Kansas native’s residency work for an additional three years. Jackson’s duties will include continuing to produce new works, theater advocacy work and participating in educational outreach programs.
In spring 2018, KC Rep will stage Jackson’s fourth produced play Brother Toad. The play examines why people make decisions out of fear and looks at how guns and violence can affect the Black Community.
“It’s incredibly urgent,” Wolf said. “We are talking about questions around violence and the use of guns, the proliferation of guns, and gun control in Kansas City within the Black community.”
When asked about the Kansas people who helped to influence him, Jackson looked back fondly on his days as a student at Washington High School. He points to his vocal performance teacher James Lindsey, one of his few Black male teachers, as just a “good example” of a man. Jackson credits Lindsey with teaching him to appreciate music. Jackson also credits his drama teacher Jeff Haney with being the first person to teach him about the art of performance and story telling.
Jackson began writing original pieces as a student in K-State’s Speech and Debate Department, because he was not satisfied with the selections that were being suggested for him to perform at competitions. He wanted to perform something that nobody had seen before.
Jackson says that K-State’s drama teacher
Kate Anderson helped him to prepare for college graduation and to enter Juilliard. But Jackson, was so busy hustling three or four jobs at a time, just to make ends meet, that he didn’t have much time to prepare for his Juilliard audition. But using his father’s lottery logic –“you can’t win if you don’t play”– he decided to go ahead and apply anyway.
What was the worst thing that could happen? He wouldn’t get in. Whether you believe the odds were in his favor or that his pure talent showed through, but the aspiring playwright made the cut and found himself at Juilliard, living his dream.
He recalled a surreal moment at the end of his first year at Juilliard where his playwriting and Kansas roots came full-circle. As was the practice, playwriting students had to have their work read/performed. Somehow, Kansas City, KS native and Fences co-star Stephen Henderson was selected to read from Jackson’s play Broke-ology.
“After the reading he (Henderson) came up and said that he heard I was from Kansas City,” Jackson said. The two started talking and long story short, Jackson found out Henderson had attended school with Jackson’s father and uncles.
“That play was written about my father and that group,” Jackson said. “This man-one day he doesn’t even know who we are and the next day he’s performing a play about a guy that he knew back in high school.”
Jackson earned his degree at Julliard in 2009, the same year his play Broke-ology premiered at the Lincoln Center. The play is about the King family who have weathered the hardships of life and survived with their love for each other intact. The father lives in the house the boys grew up in. He’s alone, but he maintains his allegiance with their mother in his own way. When the brothers are called home to take care of him, they find themselves strangely at odds. The two sons’ differences begin to define the family.
Reviewers identify the play, and Jackson’s work, as reminiscent of Lorraine Hansberry, “A Raisin in the Son, in its true-to-life naturalism, and also of Carson McCullers, “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter,” in its quiet moments of emotional conflict.
Jackson commutes weekly to Los Angeles where he’s part of the screenwriting team for Netflix’s original series Luke Cage. The show, based on the Marvel Comic book character, features a Harlem-based Black superhero. The first season of the series was well received by both viewers and critics. Prior to his work on Luke Cage, he worked on TNT’s “Southland,” and another Netflix series “13 Reasons.”
Jackson’s Luke Cage office is in the same Los Angeles lot where Shonda Rhimes’ ABC show “Grey’s Anatomy” is shot.
“It’s good to know that Hollywood is beginning to accept writers, directors and that those stories are starting to be told,” Jackson said. “We are not to the point yet where there are as many (African-American writers) as there needs to be out there. But they are out there.”
While Jackson acknowledged there are some flaws in the Hollywood system that might discourage a would-be young play writer, one still has to find the wherewithal and courage to just do it.
“There is a system to keep Black folks, people of color, broke people, different people of color in a certain place. The system works very well, but that system also has flaws and…that system has holes. We have to find those holes and we have to keep pressing forward,” he said. “Success is not guaranteed to anyone. But it’s never going to come to the guy who doesn’t shoot for it.”
Jackson admits he doesn’t feel any super-pressure or weight to explore specific themes in his work or to write any certain way. He also feels that his Kansas upbringing has taught him that nothing is promised to anyone, so his first priority is not to worry about competition in Los Angeles and what he can not control. It must be to just continue to write and produce good stories.
Of course, when Nathan is in town weekly working on his KC Rep stuff, his first priority isn’t writing at all, but spending time with his family.
“It’s pretty much kids, wife and then whatever I have to direct.”