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A Topeka Poet Turned Loss Into Comic-Book Genius, Now Staged With Superheroes

Lynn Wilson
Washburn University
Sara Godinez plays Dazzler, a Mutant Disco-Queen in Washburn University's original production of 'Missing You, Metropolis,' based on Gary Jackson's book of poetry.

As a teenager in Topeka, Kansas, Gary Jackson found solace from loss and loneliness in comic books, with a best friend named Stuart, and in putting his own pen to paper.

He captured those memories in a 2010 poetry collection called Missing You, Metropolis that won the Cave Canem Poetry Prize, a first-book award for "exceptional manuscripts by black poets."

The book inspired theatrical productions in both Lawrence and Topeka. Its third iteration for the stage appears this week at Just Off Broadway as part of InPlay Inc.'s "By the Book" series. Founded in 1999 but on hiatus for a while, InPlay has reemerged with the mission of creating and maintain a climate of diversity in Kansas City's theater community.

A graduate of Washburn University who now teaches poetry at the College of Charleston in South Carolina, Jackson says the collection was inspired in part by painful losses. His sister died at the age of eight, when Jackson was eleven, and his best friend Stuart later committed suicide.

Jackson says his intentions for preserving these experiences were twofold.

"One was to explore what happened to these two men who in a lot of ways love each other, like the love you'd have for a brother, to preserve that time that seems so formative now but didn't seem so important when I was living through it,” Jackson says of his friendship with Stuart.

“But also, in a selfish way, to elevate comic books as literature, to something more than lowbrow entertainment."

Credit Courtesy Gary Jackson
Poet Gary Jackson

The collection is notably different from typical books of poetry in that Jackson's musings and memories have the look of graphic novels such as Maus and Fun Home. The comic-book superheroes of his youth figure into the narrative as well, especially because he and Stuart bonded over them as curious fifth-graders.

"We both enjoyed the curves/of comic-book women, the rustle of cheap paper between fingers," Jackson writes in a poem named after his friend. The depth of that friendship is sealed in the poem's conclusion: "Consider how we enter the world, not alone/but with someone/only a scream away."

The central speaker in the book, he admits, is "a slightly personified version of me: the young black man who grows up in Topeka, Kansas."

"It's about these two boys who become young men trying to figure out ways to escape the city they feel like is a really small town. Like sex and drugs and drinking – you know, the things you do when you don't know what you want to do. You just know you want to do something."

One of the creators of the stage version of Missing You, Metropolis is Washburn theater professor Penny Weiner, who first met Jackson when he enrolled in her playwriting class in the fall of 2000.

"He wrote a play that had a little to do with superheroes. It was an interesting piece, rooted in reality," Weiner recalls. "It was a nice introduction to how he blends the real and the fantastic. I had so much fun with him in class. He was such an intelligent and engaged young man."

Weiner keeps returning to Jackson's poems because the love and the loss in his young life strikes home, she says.

When Weiner decided that Missing You, Metropolis might be the kind of new work she likes to see on a stage, she enlisted colleagues from the school's creative writing department and Jackson himself, quizzing him about details missing from the poems that might provide the thread she needed for a viable piece of theater.

"And the fact he found his respite in comics and other kinds of literature. In some measure, he’s created superhero voices which reflect the dissonance he saw. They also reveal undersides or practicalities a child wouldn’t understand."

Jackson says it was “surreal” to see the play for the first time an audience member. That was partly because he’d brought childhood friends who were seeing themselves depicted by actors. And he was moved by how other creative hands had shaped "these actions that we all did twenty years ago."

His current passion is exposing other young people to poetry and its limitless potential for processing uniquely singular thoughts, feelings, and histories.

"I originally wrote poems to preserve memory," Jackson says. "I think of memories as the oldest and truest lies and I don't like relying on them for truth.”

But that’s the same reason memories make good fodder for poetry, he says.

“I like how memory preserves emotional truth.”

So do Jackson’s readers, and now, theater audiences.

Missing You, Metropolis is part of InPlay Inc's "By the Book" series of staged readings. November 18-22, Just Off Broadway, 3051 Central, Kansas City, Missouri, 64141, 816-784-5020.

Steve Walker is a freelance arts reporter and film critic at KCUR 89.3. He can be reached at sewalker@ku.edu.

Since 1998, Steve Walker has contributed stories and interviews about theater, visual arts, and music as an arts reporter at KCUR. He's also one of Up to Date's regular trio of critics who discuss the latest in art, independent and documentary films playing on area screens.
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