Responding to the World Around You

An interview with playwright Nathan Louis Jackson

Nathan Louis Jackson is the Playwright-in-Residence at Kansas City Rep through the National Playwright Residency Program, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Find out more about his residency experience here, and learn about the impact of the program at large here.

Marissa Wolf: What’s it like to be a playwright on staff at a major regional theatre?

Nathan Louis Jackson: The times that I’m here at Kansas City Rep, there’s no more stimulating place to work. You hear music as you walk down the hall, you’re talking to cool artists, it’s much better than sitting in your room and typing away. It can suck to have to sit in a room by yourself. When you’re just floating by yourself, the only time you get to be in the theatre is when they’re doing your show. As a playwright, you can get stuck in your own head, and your own work. Being in residence forces you to see other work; you meet people and you go see plays at other theatres. It has made me become a deeper part of the KC art scene.

By visiting local schools and churches I've been able to connect to the audience in a different way. I get to not only speak to them through my work but to listen to their stories.

Marissa: Your voice and connection to the Kansas City community seems to be making a serious impact at KC Rep. Can you talk about your role in season planning and community outreach?

Nathan: The most important thing to me when talking about season planning is making sure that the theatre is looking at work from a wide range of voices. We want to make sure all stories are being told in a new and creative way. I also have relationships with a lot of young playwrights whose work could be developed at the KC Rep, so it’s been exciting to dive into those conversations around new work.

When it comes to community outreach, I enjoy being part of the Rep's connection to the Black community. It feels good to not only entertain but engage. By visiting local schools and churches I've been able to connect to the audience in a different way. I get to not only speak to them through my work but to listen to their stories.

Marissa: What does it mean to be a playwright and person of color on the inside track of the regional theatre scene?

Nathan: I feel like I’m learning things that I’m just starting to understand about being an African American playwright, working in theatre today, and where I fit in. The thing I’m bumping up against now is being an African American playwright, but not really wanting that title attached to me. Trying to get the good things that come with the title but shed all the bad things. Sometimes you have to fight through that.

Across the board, theatre is thought to be diverse and progressive. That doesn’t mean that the work or audiences are representative of the community demographics. I sit and talk to actors and artists about this; because we’re presenting to a predominantly white audience, we have to communicate differently. For example, a Black female actress, every time she auditions, has to prove why they should give her a role that wasn’t written for her. As a writer, I want to write a play with six Black actors, but I know folks might not do it.

I can’t change the landscape single-handedly, but I can chip away at it. Over time, if we write plays that have all different kinds of people in them, we begin to make a difference. I try to write for myself, but also write to change the way we do things. I feel as if I have to do that.

two actors laughing on stage
Broke-ology by Nathan Louis Jackson, with Postell Pringle (left) and David Emerson Toney (right).

Marissa: I know each of your plays opens wide really important, difficult conversations. Can you talk a little about that?

Nathan: It feels sometimes like I don’t have a choice of what I write. At every point in your life, there’s a story you can’t get away from that you have to tell. If you’re tuned into the world, you actually are alive and looking around and responding to the world around you.

Marissa: I’m excited that in your newest play, you look at the gun control divide.

Nathan: There are so many issues that will always be here with gun violence, specifically with African Americans, and how it affects us. I have children now; my kids are young, and the kids who are being killed are young. Having my kids makes me perceive all of the issues around gun control differently. I try to be specific in characters. I write more about bi-racial characters—it’s not Black and White anymore (no pun intended). My kids are bi-racial. You don’t have to choose one or the other, that is an identity now.

Marissa: You’re writing about the world your kids are journeying into.

Nathan: The future is important; I can’t really write about the past. Some of my friends are upset about the recent TV shows and movies about slavery. I think the past can help us answer questions to understand this current moment, like the effects of slavery. If you think you already know what’s happened, then let’s talk about how it affects us now.

It’s a weird thing to make sure people understand that everyone has a privilege.

White folks don’t have to carry the things that people of color do. You read a play and it will specify race only for the characters of color, but for white characters it won’t specify. Black History Month separates us, some people think, but until we have genuine equality, we have much further to go. I’ll be happy when we don’t have diversity awards, but if we get rid of that award right now, then we don’t win any awards.

I can’t change the landscape single-handedly, but I can chip away at it. Over time, if we write plays that have all different kinds of people in them, we begin to make a difference.

Marissa: You’re in a unique situation because this grant affords you the opportunity to work and live in KC; to have a voice in a community you are from.

Nathan: There’s no place I’d rather be. I can’t be in one place for too long, so visiting NY and working in LA is great, but those aren’t my cities. This is my city. We’d do whatever we could to stay here, but this grant allows us to be connected. I’m a Chiefs guy. It’s easier to live here financially. My mother is here. There are so many reasons to stay here.

Marissa: What do your kids think about their dad working in a theatre?

Nathan: My kids they come here, and they come backstage. It’s a form of the feeling when you watch The Goonies for the first time, or you read a book for the first time; for two seconds, when they step on the stage of one of my plays, they’re transported inside that world.

Because of theatre, their perspective is different, too; there’s room to breathe. This is the way the world works “for now,” and then we find a new way to do things. They’re much more accepting of people.  

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