BWW Exclusive: Rodney Earl Jackson Jr. - 'Navigating Racism and Creating My Vision of America in Professional Theatre'
Rodney Earl Jackson Jr., Co-Founder and Co-Artistic Director of The San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Company has penned an article exclusively for BroadwayWorld, discussing his personal journey in the world of theater, how The San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Company came to be and more.
Read his article below.
I was the "Lucky One!" First to get cast in a Broadway show out of everyone in my graduating class at Carnegie Mellon University. In the spring of 2013, The Book of Mormon's casting team auditioned just about every Brown or Black student from the CMU showcase. I got the callback. And not too shortly after...I got the call. The special call every musical theatre nerd grows up dreaming about. The call that meant the end of a life of poverty for a Black family who spent their last dollars on the dance shoes that were required for the arts program I "just had to be in" at 10-years-old. The call that turned dreams into realities. This. Was. The. Call. I was going to Broadway to join The Book of Mormon company! After I hung up with my manager, I felt something I had never felt before. Were things going right? Was this hard work and dedication falling into alignment with access? Endorphins filled me up so much they nearly suffocated me. My cheeks hurt from the beaming bliss across my face.The sun was shining bright on this 22-year-old Black man from San Francisco who knew that, unlike many of his graduating peers, without employment of this caliber, he couldn't even afford the security deposit for an apartment in the city of the "Great White Way." He had to be employed to simply exist on the same level. And he was! Or so, he thought he was.
Eventually my heart rate leveled, and when it did, I got the other call. My manager called me and said, "Don't panic...They made a mistake. They pulled your headshot by mistake for another of the Black men, who they are actually casting. They mixed up the names of the two prospective Ugandans and called us by mistake." Devastation. Why did I even dream or believe that this would come to me? Amongst the Pandora's box of insecurities, I ignored the wonder: "Did they really just mix up one Black guy for the other Black guy? Are we that interchangeable?" I didn't, in that moment, identify the situation as a form of racism. This mix up seemed small in comparison to the greater injustices and violence experienced by Black people in this country. Still, the sting of this first experience, my first professional auditioning experience, never truly went away. Upon hearing the voices of the brothers whose headshots were always mixed up, mistakenly pulled, and irresponsibly called without a consideration of the impact on those artists' lives, I have come to understand that it wasn't just me and it wasn't small. It's a pattern that elucidates the way Broadway treats and values Black artists.
Despite this setback, I remained committed to my love for theater. Paying your dues is a part of the process. I thought, "The call may not have come, but I'll still follow what calls me." Also, I was broke. Instead of going straight to Broadway, I spent the time after graduating gaining my equity card at a summer stock company in Pittsburgh. It was that summer I would audition, again, for the company that, due to expansion to multiple tours, had many open roles for Black actors: The Book of Mormon. I first attended an open call at a theatre space in Pittsburgh, then was sent to callbacks in NYC. I went in with positive energy, forgiving anything that might have stood in the way of the moment, still not acknowledging the past experience as racially charged or blatantly insensitive. I sang into the stratosphere, forgot a line, recovered, made them laugh, and ultimately had a fine audition. I heard no response for 3 months. As the summer ended, with no financial resources to survive in the NYC theatre market, along with ½ of my 2 audition experiences being what they were, I returned to my city, San Francisco, to create the theatrical home that I longed for. I and my longtime best friend, Marcelo Javier Pereira, decided to create our own Theatre Company and so, the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Company (SFBATCO) was founded.
This is where life is a 'trip', as we Black folk say. With not one week left of rehearsals for SFBATCO's very first show, a musical revue called "Fake Your Way To The Top", at San Francisco's African American Art & Culture Complex, I got yet another call from my manager: "You booked it this time! The Book of Mormon wants you to be their 'vacation swing' starting in one week." "WHAT?" I thought, "One week!? SFBATCO was opening our first show in a couple of days!" "Also," my manager added, "they aren't flying you out so go look up a plane ticket ASAP. Congrats!" A thousand thoughts and questions spun in my mind. Do I take this job? Do I have a choice? It was the first of many times I would have to grapple with this question: My small new theatre company, or the "Great White Way?" With the opportunity so large and our company still such a fledgling, the dice fell in favor of Broadway. This was an opportunity to be paid to do the work I wanted to do and a door to a future of making a living in the arts. Marcelo made it work without me and is one of the smartest and strongest people I know for holding the show and our brand new company together under such unique circumstances.
What a life a 'vacation swing' has to live. I like to think of the position as being the show's insurance for the insurance. In case you are unfamiliar, I was essentially an understudy for the resident understudies or 'swings.' I was prepared for many different roles within the show and in the building to maintain a minimum head count for when other company members would take their vacations. My quick memory and youthful spirit quickly became an asset and I was flown around the country as the show's on-call "Ugandan" for a period of time. I was being WORKED, but also, I could barely pay my rent. How could that be possible while working on a Broadway show? Well, I learned as a 'vacation swing,' you are sometimes only hired for one or two weeks out of the month and don't have the option to take other employment because of these one or two week commitments. I quickly realized that being the show's insurance policy left me incredibly exposed as a young performer. If only my Carnegie Mellon 'Business of Acting' class had prepared me for that. However, I was shocked to learn that this was not the standard experience for every 'vacation swing.' There was a member of the cast, my "Mormon Boy" counterpart, who like me, was the insurance for the insurance. But he was white and had a different title - 'universal swing.' When I asked a Black veteran in the cast what a 'universal swing' was, he said: "Someone who is always 'hired': on call, and employed. Duhhh and why are you asking? That's what you are." "No, I'm not," I said. "My contract says 'vacation swing.' He almost choked, "That's not right at all! They're having you flying to all the companies nonstop with so many people jumping ship for After Midnight and Holler If You Hear Me, and they're not paying you for certain weeks while you have to have an apartment in New York? What kind of sense does that make?" Indeed.
I went to The Book of Mormon's company manager."Hi, I was wondering if there was a reason that there is a 'universal swing' for the 'Mormon Boys' (the white characters in the play) and not one for the 'Ugandans' (the African characters in the play)? The response I received was: "Here at Book of Mormon we do not see the need for a Black 'universal swing.'" I still remember the look of horror on my face as he slapped me with these words, believing so cavalierly that it was acceptable to utter them to me, as if blind to the clear racial messaging. Those were the last words he spoke to me. My manager terminated my contract after I lied to get a personal day to audition for Motown: the Musical and booked it.
Motown was so Black and Proud. It was amazing, and honorable, and gratifying, and Black. So Black. I played golf with Smokey Robinson at the Chairman's home in Los Angeles, sang a Stevie Wonder song with Stevie Wonder onstage in Detroit, performed at the Inaugural "Berry Gordy Day" for Berry Gordy himself in Oakland, and was visited by Jenifer Lewis while performing in St. Louis during the Ferguson trials. After our show, in a town burning in protest to racial violence, she embraced every single one of us and told us what we were doing was important work and that we would be safe. Beyond that, I and my 30 other castmates and behind the scenes team paid homage to a catalogue of Black History eight times a week to hundreds of thousands of people across the country. This, along with countless other stories, are why I stayed with the amazing company for over two years. The show was dismissed for being a jukebox musical, and shut out by the people who hold the keys to the Tonys, and yet it represented something not many other musicals playing at the time did: Pure Black Excellence. The show and producers had areas where there could have been improvement and I think many of us were aware of them, but It was a breath of fresh air after my past experience. I wanted, and still want, my artistic work to validate my worth, my experiences, and my Blackness.
With my first two Broadway experiences under my belt, fueling, inspiring, and challenging my artistic growth, I found creating SFBATCO was more vital than I ever thought it would be. Now as a producer, and always a Black Man, my friends and I are creating a theatre world we want to exist in - one in which Black people and people of color are seen beyond a headshot piled in with other artists the same shade of brown, one where the inherent worth of each human and their work ethic are valued equally across the board. SFBATCO has a mission to produce compelling live theater that builds community, fosters cross-cultural dialogue, promotes social justice and authentically reflects the experiences of LGBTQ+ people and communities of color. In our productions, we work to address social justice issues from an intersectional perspective and present affirmative non-stereotypical representations. We always put compensation for our artists' work at the center of our production conversation and are committed to finding ways to tell our stories equitably. We recognize that we cannot ignore this economic element in telling the stories of communities who are feared or ostracized for their sexual preferences, gender, race, religion, socioeconomic or immigration status. We know our practices and projects must uplift on and off the stage, in the audience, and behind the scenes.
SFBATCO's flagship production, I, Too, Sing America, poignantly takes on this mission. Because of the collaboration between diverse voices on the producing team, creative team, and performing company, we achieved something creatively that spoke to many different kinds of people. It passed the mic and gave a creative home to so many artists who don't see themselves authentically represented in popular theatre. Artists who keep striving regardless of being treated as "quota fillers" in the margins of white spaces. We see them. We hear them. We PAY them. Audiences cared and came out. I, Too, Sing America became an award winning show for the company and the creative team (composer Othello Jefferson, director Jamie Yuen-Shore, choreographer Christine Chung). Our company, The San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Company, won Outstanding Production of a Musical at the Theatre Bay Area awards. I consider myself blessed to be able to help bring together a project like this. This is the work that makes me a "Lucky One."
Broadway, like America, is a fundamentally broken system that is built on white supremacy and exploits Black bodies to make white audiences feel more 'cultured.' I learned this early, and while I hope the system changes, and it can change, I decided to put my energy towards creating the Theatre World (i) want, rather than fixing an industry and a system that was not created for people like me, and is only making room for Black people when it is beneficial to the financial interests of industry leaders. The experiences I had at The Book of Mormon don't make me resentful, that's not me; I yearn for healing and accountability. What an incredible opportunity for unity during this time. Shame is not the answer, nor do I believe "cancel culture" is either. We all have a responsibility, a very powerful one: to treat others as we would want to be treated, to walk in our truths openly and honestly, and to challenge the system fearlessly. And to proudly and loudly shout Black Lives Matter, simply because: we do.
If you are a Black artist or an artist of color and would like to share your stories, your work, and your experiences, or to recommend someone else that we should get in touch with for one of our initiatives, please feel free to email us at email@example.com.
Photo Credit: Isa Musni