Editor’s note: This is part of an occasional series on our local artists and their experiences in these turbulent times.
After more than 30 years of successful acting, Seattle’s Reginald Andre Jackson is ready to fully embrace the hyphen in his title of “actor-playwright.”
Jackson, primarily an actor who has experience with directing and writing, used his pandemic downtime to create “History of Theatre,” his play about the untold stories of African American theater. The project is ambitious, Jackson said, accounting for 200 years of history, but the otherwise empty days of the pandemic allowed him to dig deep and make great progress. In 2021, Seattle’s A Contemporary Theatre offered a digital behind-the-scenes look at the creation of the play as a way to draw audiences in, before part one premieres at ACT in January 2023.
“I was an actor who wrote a little bit,” said Jackson, who’s been a regular on Seattle stages for decades. “I’m taking the hyphen now at this point because this project and a few more that have popped up … I feel like I’m growing into owning that, my voice as a writer.”
Jackson began developing “History of Theatre” in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder and the release of the “We See You, White American Theater” document, in which hundreds of theatermakers across the country demanded better representation and greater anti-racism work in their field.
“[ACT] started to have some really intense conversations about how we functioned and how we could get away from some of the enshrined institutional legacies and really look at each other and see each other, during this pause,” said John Langs, ACT’s artistic director. “There’s certainly some wounds that needed to be healed just in our own community.”
As a member of ACT’s core company, Jackson said he is grateful to participate in the long-overdue change happening in American theater, and “History of Theatre” is adding to the conversation. Writing it, Jackson said, raised questions of how the arts had maintained the same institutional racism for 200 years and how, in those 200 years, history had managed to forget the accomplishments of African Americans in theater.
All of his experience in theater has not taught Jackson much about its African American history. For one, he said he was surprised to hear that nearly 100 years ago, there was what was then called a Negro unit of the Federal Theatre Project housed in Seattle’s University District.
“I cannot speak to everyone’s level of education, but when we have workshopped this piece … there was a nearly universal cry of, ‘Why do I not know this? Why have I not been taught this?’” he said.
With all of the research involved, developing a play of this kind during a pandemic was a blessing and a curse, Jackson said, reflecting on the days when libraries were closed.
“The access to information wasn’t there,” he said. “I would often write things and then, by the time I could get a hold of some actual physical books and look at some stuff in the libraries, I even had to go back and readjust all of the false information.”
“History of Theatre” is directed by Valerie Curtis-Newton, founding artistic director of The Hansberry Project, a collaborator in the play’s development. The play’s first of two parts takes place 200 years ago in New York in America’s first Black theater, African Grove, Jackson said.
“They put on Shakespeare plays and challenged the only real major theater in the United States at the time in New York,” he said. “Things got ugly, and there were riots.”
As the world opens up, Jackson’s schedule is filling up. Jackson eagerly agreed to write a play for a theater in Wisconsin. He’s also acting in an upcoming film by an independent director, though the timeline has been repeatedly pushed by COVID-19.
As he’s established himself as an “actor-playwright,” Jackson said he’s been drawn to the genre of historical fiction; particularly, he loves to write about unsung heroes.
“To see the truly heroic feats they accomplished under such tremendous odds and unwelcoming circumstances,” he said, “is incredibly heartening to me.”
This coverage is partially underwritten by the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over this and all its coverage.