KCK playwright: Part Seinfeld, Chapelle, O’Neill
How a local playwright’s homegrown tale found success in New York
By Reeves Wiedeman
Special to The Star
NEW YORK – All 299 seats in the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at New York’s Lincoln Center were occupied one night last November for the final performance of “Broke-ology,” the first professional play by 31-year-old playwright Nathan Louis Jackson.
Posters from past productions – the world premiere of “Six Degrees of Separation,” for one – lined the lobbyoutside, and the stage displayed a warm but worn home, with bars over the windows and a kitchen counter stuffed with bags of chips and two-liter bottles of cream soda.
The home could have been in Brooklyn or Yonkers, but it wasn’t. It stood in for a single-family house in Kansas City, Kan., somewhere along 18th Street, with copies of The Kansas City Star strewn about and a Hen House Market sticker on the fridge. It was a house much like the one Jackson grew up in as a child in Wyandotte County.
“It’s not every day that a kid from our town goes to Juilliard and becomes a hot playwright,” says Eric Rosen, the artistic director of the Kansas City Repertory Theater, which will stage a production of “Broke-ology” starting Friday.
Just two years earlier, Jackson had been working as a manager at Famous Dave’s Barbecue in Manhattan, Kan. Now, he was seated five rows up, stage left, watching one of his characters walk onto a Lincoln Center stage in a Royals cap, cocked confidently to the side.
When Jackson arrived as a freshman at Kansas State University, he hadn’t written so much as a scene, let alone a full script. The Wyandotte County of his childhood had no community centers staging youth plays, as there might have been in, say, Overland Park. His first foray into drama was at Washington High School, where he had starring roles as a Vietnam vet and Mr. Mushnik in “Little Shop of Horrors,” but he grew tired, he said, of “saying what Shakespeare or Mamet wanted me to say.”
Prompted by a few acting friends at K-ansas State who were looking for new scripts, he began writing short, often humorous, monologues that he and his friends would perform at contestscompetitions.
“We would just clean up at these competitions, ’cause they hadn’t seen the kind of stuff Nate was writing,” says George Stavropoulos, one of those friends of Jackson’s at K-State.
In 2001, Jackson’s father diedpassed away after a struggle with multiple sclerosis. Jackson soon began writing a play about a family in KCK with a patriarch suffering from the same disease. The play, “Mancherios,” was named after his father’s teenage gang in KCK. It centered on two brothers, Ennis and Malcolm, the latter a college graduate forced to choose between a dream job on the East Coast and staying to care for his father.
Jackson, who played Malcolm in the original production at K-State, found himself facing a crossroads of his own after graduation. Following a brief series of small roles in Kansas City (The Star’s Robert Trussell, reviewing a Coterie show, noted that Jackson brought “a degree of subtlety to the stage that is most welcome”), he returned to Manhattan and started taking classes (in environmental science, Malcolm’s major), in part so he could enter student playwriting competitions. Then, in 2006, his wife, Megan, discovered she was pregnant.
“It created a sense of urgency in Nathan,” she says Megan. “He thought, ‘If I’m really going to make a go of it, it has to be now.’“
One of the scripts he had been writing was “The Last Black Play,” a title meant to be self-fulfilling. The play’s lead character is frustrated with being labeled a “black artist” and sets out to write a play so black, so full of stereotypes, that no one wants to see black or white theater anymore – they just want to see good theater.
The play was selected as one of just four productions nationwide (and the only one written by a student) to be performed at the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival, and it earned Jackson national awards named after Lorraine Hansberry and Mark Twain.
Jackson submitted the play to several graduate programs, but by mid-summer 2007 every school but one had rejected him. With a child on the way, he had begun to think began thinking about a more stable job than his managerial shift at Famous Dave’s – “I came home smelling like meat every day” – when he got a call from the Juilliard School in New York. He had been They had selected him as one of four playwrights, out of 400 applicants, to join its program.
Less than 48 hours later, Megan went into labor.
“That was a great week,” Jackson says. “The weeks after that were hell.”
Here was the hell: “So, I’m on the subway with my wife, my brother, my baby, I’m holding the baby, Megan’s sleeping on my shoulder, and I’m thinking, ‘We’re homeless. That’s it. I have dropped the ball.’ We just moved to New York, and I’m on the train with a bunch of suitcases ”cause we’re homeless. ‘Good work, Jackson, look what you did.’.“
New York landlords were hesitant to lease to a jobless student, especially one raising a child. Megan talked about heading back to Kansas with their daughter, Amaya, until when finally, late on a Friday evening, they found an apartment in East east New York, a rough neighborhood more than over an hour’s subway ride from Juilliard’s upper west side campus.
At school, his classmates arrived bursting with new script ideas while his mind had been occupied with by taking care of his family. He had none, so he pulled out “Mancherios” and started refining the play, paring six characters to four and cutting disparate scenes. Malcolm, the character he had played at K-State, came into sharper focus, and the spare, crisp play left in its wake became “Broke-ology.”
“Broke-ology” is by in turns touching, heartbreaking and surprisingly funny. In describing the play, those who have worked with Jackson rarely fail to note the humanity of the characters and his instinct for observing the way people talk, act and think. -H His friends often hear lines in his plays that they’ve said over a beer at a bar (Jackson doesn’t drink, but he carries a notebook everywhere).
“Nate is equal parts Jerry Seinfeld, Dave Chappelle and Eugene O’Neill,” says Stavropoulos, who also moved to New York, in hopes of furthering an acting career. “He can make you laugh hysterically, and before you know it he’s kicked your teeth in with some huge dramatic moment.”
Late in Jackson’s first semester at Juilliard, the school staged a reading of “Broke-ology” for the student body and faculty. There’s one scene just after intermission where the father character sings a Temptations song with his deceased wife – “It was just my imagination/ running away with me” — only to realize he’s dreaming. Suddenly, and without a prompt, the audience began to sing along.
“Sometimes the students come after a full day of class, and they can be a bit checked out,” says Joe Kraemer, Jackson’s adviseor at Juilliard. “But this was one of those rare ones that just hit the mark. I saw them start singing and just thought, ‘Oh, my God, he’s got them in the palm of his hand.’.“
The reading had a domino effect. One of Jackson’s teachers recommended the play to an agent, who put it into the hands of Tommy Kail, the Tony-winning director of the musical “In the Heights.” Kail loved the play and agreed to direct, and just months later, the prestigious Williamstown Theater Festival in Massachusetts gave it a stage. The morning after seeing the first performance in Williamstown, the director of Lincoln Center Theater’s new artist emerging playwright’s program approached Jackson and asked if they could stage “Broke-oOlogy.”
Just one year after Jackson had arrived in New York, his play would be the first production in Lincoln Center’s 25th season.
The lead character in Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play, “A Raisin in the Sun,” is Walter Lee Younger, a hustler and dreamer desperately looking for a way out of Chicago’s South Side. Sidney Poitier made the part famous, and Jackson took on the role as a senior in high school.
“It’s hard to explain unless you’ve spent time in the urban core and seen how low the expectations can be,” says Jeff Haney, Washington High School’s theater director at the time. “Nathan could have made a lot of bad decisions and no one would have been surprised, but he wanted something much bigger than what he was given. Nathan is Walter Lee.”
Nathan and Megan now live in a second-story apartment in an up-and-coming Brooklyn neighborhood. Last month, the living room was still littered with moving boxes, one of which Jackson had turned into a playhouse for his daughter. A police siren blared outside: “Is that her?” [Nathan asked.] “Hard to tell the difference.”
He has a stable job writing for a forthcoming television show and a second play in [development for next season] production at Lincoln Center, which has eased the initial struggle of surviving in New York. He says he wants to return to Kansas, but his heart is in theater, and for now that means staying close to Broadway.
“There’s something about Times Square, especially on the right night, right after a show, when you get a good snow on the ground,” he saysys. “As a playwright, you see some of those big billboards and the names up there, and you think …”
His voice drifted off. “But I’ll wait. I can wait.”
Jackson sat between his wife and several friends at the final performance of “Broke-ology,” watching the audience laugh at jokes he had written, then joining them in a standing ovation. An older white gentleman walked over and shook Jackson’s hand, thanking him. Another audience member reached from two rows away and offered a package of Kleenex. He took it and turned to his right and left, handing out tissues. His neighbors were in tears.
“My reaction?” says George Stavropoulos, on seeing “Broke-ology” for the first time. “The baby’s gonna eat.”