“Let’s hear what you've got,” Nathan Louis Jackson says to Roben Pope, a junior at Central Academy of Excellence in Kansas City, Missouri.
Jackson rests his elbows on the table so he’s at the same level as Pope, one of a dozen students in a special creative writing class here. He’s relaxed and informal.
“Doesn’t matter how much," he says. "Got just a few lines, got an idea? Let’s just hear whatever there is.”
These students know Jackson mainly from his contributions to television: the Marvel Comic-based series “Luke Cage,” the ABC show “Resurrection” and the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why.”
Less well known to them are his works as a playwright. Two of his plays have been produced on stages in New York (including at Lincoln Center), and he’s currently an Andrew W. Mellon Artist in Residence at the Kansas City Repertory Theater.
Jackson has been visiting this class since the start of the school year as part of a collaboration between KCUR and the Kansas City Public School District. For an investigative project called The Argument, KCUR and its partners are exploring the motives behind Kansas City’s homicides. The class is designed to help young people create their own stories around gun violence. Some have written poems, others have written scenes from a play, one young man has composed music.
They'll perform their works for the school and the public in December.
As the project nears its conclusion, I asked Jackson about how the class is going.
JACKSON: "Some of these kids are killin’ it right now, to the point where we're talking about difficult things and we don’t have to talk about the basics (of storytelling structure) quite as much. They can handle complex ideas. They’re much further than I remember myself being (at their age) and a lot of them, as far as I know, don’t have the experience in creative writing. They’re really smart kids. They’re really sharp."
ZIEGLER: I wonder if some of that has to do with social media — texting, Facebook?
JACKSON: "To and fro, to and fro. I think social media clearly helps. We live in an information age and information is very important. But this stuff also becomes a distraction. You go on somebody’s Facebook page and see how they’re living. That’s not how they're living. That’s kind of a lie. Texting is communication, but it’s communication at a very limited level. You’re just looking at words; you’re not hearing voices, you’re not seeing intentions.
And I realize how we can do something about that in this class. There’s a certain amount of human connection that we’ve lost around social media. What we’re doing here brings some of that back. It’s not coming from a textbook, it isn’t coming from — no offense to any Ted Talks or any of those things on You Tube — but what we’re doing is live, in your face. This is real."
ZIEGLER: The students do seem to be opening up more and more. Now how do you get them to write authentically about their experiences?
JACKSON: "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. 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."
ZIEGLER: They’re beginning to realize writing something others will hear is hard. How do you prepare them to perform their works?
JACKSON: "Trial and error. For me it was. In school, I was doing speech and debate. In college, I did original monologues because in high school you’re not allowed to write your own pieces. I got tired of having to do the usual August (Wilson). Nothing against August, but I wanted to do something new. So I wrote a piece about my dad and other stuff near and dear to my heart. This stuff would win, maybe not first place, but people were clapping, coming up to you afterwards, and it gave me a feeling of approval and recognition that people cared about my story. That’s important.
I think when these students see people react to their stories and hear them say, 'Hey, I’m kind of moved by what you’re saying, I understand, your story is important,' that’s all they need. I see these kids as a key component in helping us bridge the gap that’s dividing our communities today."
ZIEGLER: How do you see your experience and journey as a writer affecting the students? What do you hope will be their biggest takeaway?
JACKSON: "I want them to know it’s OK to write about anything, to be creative and write their own stories. So if you want to stretch out and write about science fiction, that’s great. Or if you want to combine the two, that’s great, too, like with the movie Get Out, where they took this horror movie or thriller and said, 'Were gonna take a little twist on this and deal with race.' Even though the movie is not about race, they’re talking about some real stuff, but through a genre black people don't often use.
So we want to give them a safe place where they’re not going to be made to feel lame or stupid. Once we provide that safe environment, 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 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.' That's cool, that’s OK. It's more than OK!"
Laura Ziegler is a community engagement reporter and producer. Reach her on twitter @laurazig or email firstname.lastname@example.org.