Interview: Claude Jackson, Jr. of CASHED OUT at San Francisco Playhouse Explores the Struggles and Triumphs of Battling Addiction within the Native American Community

The world premiere of Jackson's play runs January 26th to February 25th in San Francisco

By: Jan. 25, 2023
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Interview: Claude Jackson, Jr. of CASHED OUT at San Francisco Playhouse Explores the Struggles and Triumphs of Battling Addiction within the Native American Community
Claude Jackson, Jr., playwright of Cashed Out at San Francisco Playhouse
(photo by Roberto A. Jackson)

Despite the rich diversity of cultural offerings we're so fortunate to have here in the Bay Area, Native American theatre makers are still rarely represented. San Francisco Playhouse set out to ameliorate that unfortunate reality by commissioning Claude Jackson, Jr. to write Cashed Out, now enjoying its world premiere with a cast of acclaimed actors of Native American and indigenous descent, including several who have been with the production since its earliest readings. This frank and touching play tells the story of three generations of women living on the Gila River Indian Community Reservation in Arizona, illuminating their battles and triumphs fighting addiction and upholding the traditions of their tribe.

The work was first seen in abbreviated form as a developmental reading in 2020 via San Francisco Playhouse's Zoomlet streaming. Audience response was so strong that the company commissioned a completed work by its Native American playwright. In addition to his "day job" as an attorney and director of his tribe's public defender's office, Jackson has a thriving multi-faceted career in theatre and film. Five of his plays were featured in previous Native Voices at the Autry Short Play Festivals, including the original short version of Cashed Out, which won the 2019 festival. Alongside his brother Roberto, Jackson wrote, produced and directed the feature film In Circles, available for streaming on Amazon Prime. Jackson recently acted in Cornerstone Theatre Company and Arizona State University's production of Native Nation as well as Arizona State University's production of Indian School.

I caught up with Jackson last week just after he'd flown back home to Arizona after spending a week in San Francisco to attend rehearsals. We talked about how he went about expanding his original short play into a full-length work, how rehearsals have been going, and how he maintains his crazy dual legal/arts career. The following are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Tell me a little about Cashed Out. How would you describe your play?

It is a tragedy about addiction, in particular gambling addiction. The setting is a Native American reservation and this family of basketmakers that is dealing with addiction. It grapples with traditional basketmaking, but also with progressive self-sufficiency of tribes with gaming.

I don't think I've ever seen a play set in that world.

Yeah, that's why I chose it! I wanted it to stand out. I entered the original short play in a Native Voices contest at the Autry, the only Equity Native American theatre company. They're out of LA, and they really foster a lot of Native actors and writers. Their theme was gaming, and I just wanted it to stand out from others in the contest, and I ended up winning. I touched real hard on addiction, but I didn't want to make any kind of statement against Indian gaming because Indian gaming has brought me so much in my life, including becoming a lawyer.

When you wrote the original short play, were you already thinking ahead of expanding it into a full-length work?

No! It's a funny story, though. I won that contest in 2019 and about a year later during the pandemic when San Francisco Playhouse was doing these little short play readings, Zoomlets, Marie-Claire Erdynast from San Francisco Playhouse had seen it and really pushed for it. She mentioned it to [Artistic Director] Bill [English] that this could be one of their Zoomlets.

When they did it, people liked it and were like "Wow, this could really be a long-format play." I hadn't delved into a longform play before, and after the reading, I sent a "See ya later" email to everyone, more like a goodbye, but I also said, "I'll definitely consider doing this as a longform play." Within minutes, Bill responds, "If you want to do a longform play, we can talk about a commission." And I'm like "Uhhh...Okay?" My first paid assignment! [laughs]

Once you committed to turning Cashed Out into a full-length play, how did you go about doing that? Where did you start?

Well, the short play is one of the key scenes at the end, because that's where the dramatic action was for the short play, so I kind of just worked backwards. The short play showed the person in the throes of addiction, and she's confronting her aunt and her daughter, who takes care of her. So I started off with the main character, Rocky, as a child. My first draft was this really epic-in-scope, linear-type storytelling, maybe in more of a feature-length movie script kind of way, cause I've written movie scripts before. And then working with Bill and Marie-Claire, I started to develop a better narrative for the theatre.

How involved have you been with rehearsals?

So right now I'm recovering from a quadruple bypass -

Wow, I didn't know that!

I had that in October. They [the doctors] told me, "Claude, it'll be about a month and a half before you are fully recovered." I knew we were shooting for late December rehearsals, so I said, "OK, I'll do the operation." And then lo and behold, I mean my heart is fine, but they didn't tell me that my lungs would be so bad, and it took a while for them to come back. So anyway, when we started rehearsals on the 27th, thankfully through the power of Zoom technology I was able to sit in on the first read-throughs, but it wasn't until this week where I was finally able to travel to San Francisco for rehearsals, and then I'm going back for previews to work on it some more.

The production features a real-life father and daughter, the actors Matt and Louisa Kizer, playing the characters of Buddy and his granddaughter Maya. How did that come about?

Yeah, it's crazy. Matt's a local guy from the Bay Area, and I knew him - he did a reading of one of my other plays a few years ago. About two years ago, when Bill and someone else put together sort of a workshop read-through, they brought on Matt. Then I had this character named Maya who was a teenager, and I don't know if Matt just suggested his daughter or whatnot, but she did the reading and she was great. So there's a few of these actors that did the earlier workshops and then we just kind of retained them throughout the process.

It's unfortunately pretty rare for plays by Native American Playwrights to get produced. Did you have any role models in your community?

Well, yes ... Larissa FastHorse, whose The Thanksgiving Play is going to premiere on Broadway later this year. She's awesome, and thankfully for the power of social media, persons are more accessible and so I was able to reach out to her. I've been in one of her plays, she's been down here, and one of her plays was produced out here. So I was able to follow her around and the director, Michael Garcés from the Cornerstone Theatre Company in Los Angeles. And a lot of other people within the Native American theatre community have just been so supportive.

You're also an attorney and director of your tribe's public defender's office. How do you manage to balance that with being a writer/actor/producer/director?

Oh, man, you know what? I'm beginning to question it. [laughs] My free time has always just been writing. I'll never neglect my clients of course, and I belong to a very good office, a very good team that is supportive of me, if I need to take some time off.

I just write when I can. I'll spend my off-hours and weekends doing some writing, but I'm not a guy right now, because of my [law] career, that's putting in 4-6 hour days writing. I'm pretty fast with writing, and I'll write for a couple hours here and there for maybe weeks on end, and then all the sudden I have to put it down. So I've managed to make time. And I'm 50 now - I mean I don't play video games, both of my sports teams aren't very good, so I don't spend time on sports as much as I did when I was younger. [laughs]

Do you currently have any other theatre or film projects in the pipeline?

Yes, a play that I recently wrote called Olivia is going to be produced by the Arizona State University Theatre Lab later this year. And then I have a short play that is going to be featured at the Native Voices at the Autry this spring.

Your playwrighting career really seems to be taking off.

Yeah, it's um... surreal. I don't know how to react except to be very, very happy. I'm just enjoying the moment. And you know the business side of theatre is really to shoot for the play to garner some interest so maybe other theaters can pick it up, but I'm not thinking that far ahead. I just want the actors, cast and crew to enjoy themselves, and I want those that see it to be entertained, because they're the ones spending their hard-earned money. And of course I want the Native community to come out. Even though this story itself is universal, it is nice to see quote-unquote your own people performing this.


Cashed Out will perform January 26 - February 25, 2023 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street. For tickets and more information, visit or call the box office at 415-677-9596.


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