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Kansas City playwright Nathan Louis Jackson, who got to 'the real stuff,' dies at 44

Laura Ziegler
KCUR 89.3
Nathan Louis Jackson works with a student at Central Academy of Excellence in Kansas City, Missouri, in 2017.

Jackson was a native of Kansas City, Kansas, who attended Juilliard School in New York City and saw his work performed at Lincoln Center. But his "heart belonged in Kansas City."

Nathan Louis Jackson, a Kansas City, Kansas-born playwright and screenwriter of extraordinary talent and national acclaim, has died at age 44.

Jackson's family announced his death in a news release on Saturday, saying he died on Tuesday, Aug. 22.

"Jackson’s work often showcased his love for his hometown. Having lived and worked on both coasts, Nathan’s heart belonged in Kansas City," his family said in the statement. "Nathan was especially passionate about bar-b-que and his Kansas City Chiefs. Jackson was a devoted supporter of the arts community within Kansas City."

Jackson graduated from Washington High School and Kansas City Kansas Community College. He graduated from Kansas State University and earned a Master of Fine Arts in playwriting at the Juilliard School in New York City.

The Lincoln Center's production of Nathan Louis Jackson's "Broke-ology" starred Francois Battiste, Crystal A. Dickinson, Alano Miller and Wendell Pierce.
T Charles Erickson
The Lincoln Center's production of Nathan Louis Jackson's "Broke-ology" starred Francois Battiste, Crystal A. Dickinson, Alano Miller and Wendell Pierce.

His plays were performed at the Lincoln Center Theater and other prestigious venues. Kansas City audiences saw his work at the KCRep, where he spent six years as the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Playwright in Residence.

“KCRep produced four of Nathan Louis Jackson’s plays over eight years, including two world premieres," Executive Director Angela Gieras said of Jackson's plays "Broke-Ology," "When I Come to Die," "Sticky Traps" and "Brother Toad."

"His extraordinary talent and voice illuminated the world and KCRep. His stories encouraged audiences to grapple with complicated subjects and inspired dialogue and understanding. We grieve for the loss of his talent and for all that he was as a person.”

Jackson also spent time in Los Angeles. His television credits include Netflix's "Luke Cage" and "13 Reasons Why," NBC's “Southland," and Showtime's “Shameless,” among others.

Jackson twice won the Lorraine Hansberry Playwriting Award, was the recipient of the Mark Twain Comedy Playwriting Award, and was awarded the Kennedy Center’s Gold Medallion.

One of his goals was to increase diversity in the theater, a mission reinforced by his experience in New York.

When he studied at Julliard, Jackson told KCUR in 2016, he and his wife settled into a neighborhood that was predominantly Black and Dominican. On subway trains, he saw people from all over the world.

"It is a very diverse city," he said. "When I went to the theater, I did not see that. What I saw was (people who were) predominantly white, older, with a little money in their pockets."

Jackson knew one way to bring theater to all audiences was to get into communities.

"And we’re talking about communities who have been silent, people haven’t listened to them," he said.

KCUR reporters witnessed Jackson's work with students at the Paseo Academy of Fine and Performing Arts and Central Academy of Excellence. At Central, Jackson was participating in a collaboration between KCUR and the Kansas City Public School District for an investigative project called The Argument. KCUR and its partners were exploring the motives behind Kansas City’s homicides.

"Nathan was working on staging his play at KCRep, 'Brother Toad,'" said KCUR's Laura Ziegler. "The play was about a black teenager who survives a shooting in which the teen's friend is killed."

Jackson visited the school every other week for the semester, working with kids on shaping their narratives.

"Some sang. Some wrote an original scene and acted it out. Some of the kids had never been exposed to gun violence in their personal life. Others had lost siblings or friends, one who’d watched someone get shot and killed," Ziegler said.

Nathan Louis Jackson, playwright and screenwriter, working with high school students at Central Academy of Excellence on a collaborative project with KCUR.
Laura Ziegler
Nathan Louis Jackson, playwright and screenwriter, working with high school students at Central Academy of Excellence on a collaborative project with KCUR.

Jackson "nurtured these young people as if they were his own kids," Ziegler said.

"He listened, demonstrated technique, edited their words and directed them on stage as they performed their stories for classmates, their families and friends. It was an unforgettable experience for all of us," she said.

"It’s a matter of coming in, being honest with them, opening up the room to say, 'Hey, let me tell you my story, let me be vulnerable for a minute,' because there’s a vulnerability in telling your story,"Jackson told Ziegler. "I like to ask things that get them to dig deep: What’s your first memory growing up? Are you scared of anything? Hey, do you dream? How do you feel when you go home? What’s your home life like? And then once they start talking, we get to the real stuff."

Jackson told Ziegler he wanted to give students "a safe place where they’re not going to be made to feel lame or stupid."

Once they understood they were in such an environment, he said, "I want to tell them it's OK to stand out: 'Your mind is in a different place from everyone else.' All of us artists have been in that world and we may be a little weird, but that weirdness is going to take us to another level. It’s cool to be weird, weird is awesome. If there’s anything I want these kids to learn, it's that I want them to want to be the one who stands out, the one who people say: 'There’s something up with that guy.'"

Jackson's family statement said he would be "remembered by his loved ones for his warmth and kindness, and his phone calls. He did not believe in text messaging, preferring to speak voice to voice whenever possible."

Jackson is survived by his wife Megan Mascorro-Jackson, two children Amaya and Savion Jackson, his mother Bessie Jackson, and siblings Ebony Maddox and Wardell Jackson.

A celebration of Jackson's life is planned for 10 a.m., Saturday, Oct. 14 at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre's Spencer Theatre, 4949 Cherry St., Kansas City, Missouri.

Updated: October 9, 2023 at 9:59 AM CDT
This story has been updated to include information about the celebration of Jackson's life.
A free press is among our country’s founding principles and most precious resources. As director of content-journalism at KCUR, I want everyone in our part of America to know we see them and we’re listening. I work to make sure the stories we tell and the conversations we convene reflect our complex realities, informing and inspiring all of us to meet the profound challenges of our time. Email me at cj@kcur.org.
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