In his new play, Nathan Louis Jackson draws on his own life to tackle the issue of gun violence.
“Brother Toad” tells the story of two men who are related but going down different paths.
“Each path ends with the decision of ‘how do I protect myself and the ones I love?’” Jackson told host Gina Kaufmann on KCUR’s Central Standard.
According to Jackson, the name of the play is a play on the Uncle Remus, Brer Rabbit and Brer Bear folktales — stories originally told to slave children by their parents to help them survive in that world, he said.
“And even though we’re done with slavery, we still have to tell young black men, young black children, some different stories to help them survive in the world that we live in now,” he said.
Jackson’s own children, who are now 5 and 10, helped inspire “Brother Toad.”
He remembered the stories that his mother taught him—lessons like not walking into a department store with his hands in his pocket.
Growing up, his mother’s lessons frustrated him.
“I’m thinking, ‘she’s from the ‘60s, we don’t have to worry about this stuff anymore,’” he recalled.
But as he got older, he realized that wasn’t the case.
“I had my son, and I’m looking at him, and I’m thinking, not only was my mama right, I’m going to have to tell whatever versions, whatever stories to my child to keep him safe,” he said.
The two main characters in “Brother Toad” are versions of Jackson. One is inspired by his younger self; the other by his current self. He wanted to show a generational difference in their attitudes towards guns and safety.
Another similarity to Jackson’s life is that one character lives in Wyandotte County, where he grew up. The other lives in Johnson County, where he lives now.
He noticed how residents of both counties have different perspectives on guns.
Growing up in Wyandotte County, he said, guns meant one thing.
“These are bad things you shouldn’t have,” he said. “And if you have one, it’s going to quickly lead to your demise.”
In that neighborhood, he added, either you were killed or you’d kill someone. Guns weren’t for protection.
“How you’re viewed as an African-American man, you’re already viewed as this dangerous thing sometimes,” he said. “Now you add a gun to that — that can’t help you.”
Jackson’s perspective towards guns and safety started changing once he left his neighborhood and started meeting other people.
“When I’m in Wyandotte County, the idea of having a gun is crazy. In Johnson County, it’s not,” he said.
He has seen a few of his Johnson County neighbors walking around with weapons. For them, having a gun is just a way of life; it’s how they protect themselves, he said.
“It’s as basic as getting a smoke detector or locks on your door … and with that piece of protection, most of the people I know that are from that area feel safer,” he said. “As opposed to Wyandotte County. When you get that piece, it’s sometimes difficult to feel safer.”
Jackson said that we are split on the issue of guns — not just America as a whole, but Kansas City as well. He would like both sides to watch his play and to realize that he’s not praising one side or another, he said.
“Both sides just want to be safe, they just want protection. It’s just they go different ways of getting it,” he said.
“Is there a way for us all to feel safe? Because that’s what it comes down to,” he added. “When one person’s safety gets in the way of another person’s safety, that’s what I have a little bit of a problem with.”
"Brother Toad," runs through Sunday, May 27 at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre's Copaken Stage, 1 H&R Block Way, Kansas City, Missouri 64105, 816-235-2700.