Landing the titular role in the Broadway production of “The Lion King” left Christopher Jackson disillusioned.
“I thought more would have come from being in my first Broadway lead,” said Jackson, who would eventually originate the role of George Washington in the Broadway hit “Hamilton.” “I thought I was moving into some things, but Hollywood did not call.”
Jackson, who spoke at Washburn Auditorium on April 12 for the Strauch-Mosse Spring 2018 Visiting Artist, found that getting everything he thought he wanted was hollow. He’d missed one crucial detail.
“I forgot to cultivate the relational aspect of the business,” he said.
Then Jackson met two guys – Lin-Manuel Miranda and Thomas Kail — who invited him to workshop a hip-hop- and rap-infused musical that would eventually become the Tony Award-winning Broadway show “In the Heights.” Eventually, they would also cast Jackson in a little musical about a treasury secretary.
But before “Hamilton,” Miranda and Kail, aka Lin and Tommy, invited Jackson to join a reading. That changed everything for the young actor.
“I had the most fun sitting in a room doing that first reading of ‘In the Heights’ than I had doing anything,” he said. “They were doing the thing and I wanted to be a part of that.”
It no longer mattered that he was broke. In fact, he willingly ate cans of beans and tuna just to have the $1.50 he needed to hop on the train to the next rehearsal.
“In this world where buildings are falling down and lives are being completely destroyed, how about we meet in a basement and make something beautiful?” Gesturing to a row of high school students wearing “In the Heights” T-shirts, he said, “Now it’s on your shirt and that’s crazy to me.”
About that George Washington gig…
Jackson first heard about the idea for “Hamilton” between numbers on the set of “In the Heights.”
Backstage one night, Miranda told him: “I’ve got the next thing. It’s about the treasury secretary. It’s Alexander Hamilton, don’t tell nobody.”
Being cast as George Washington in this unlikely hit was, at first, a moral conundrum given that the founding father owned slaves and Jackson is African-American.
“It was always difficult to navigate for me,” he admitted.
Jackson visited the slave quarters at Washington’s Mount Vernon estate to gain perspective on that lesser-researched side of history.
“I felt it necessary to honor those who never had a name, who never had a story told about them,” he said. “Every aspect of my performance involved them as well.”
And those roles have set the actor apart.
“If it weren’t for Lin and Tommy, nobody would know how to cast me. I’m too light to be dark and too dark to be light,” said Jackson. “It’s tragic and that’s the only reason it’s worth laughing at.”
Jackson now has a starring role on the CBS show “Bull,” which has been an adjustment, but also an opportunity to encourage diversity on set.
“I’m gently saying, ‘Hey, we have a unique opportunity to talk about the things that people are talking about right now,’” he said. “I’m not cynical. I tend to believe that every half a step that’s made is a step in the right direction.”
Scripting a new chapter
But it has been a difficult time for the country, and Jackson said the election cycle and other recent news prompted him to engage with the world in a new way.
“We can’t just stand on the stage somewhere and say my only responsibility is to make someone laugh or somebody cry and then go home. I have to try to do something different, something new.”
To that end, Jackson felt empowered to begin writing his first script.
He encouraged the audience to follow his lead. “Find the means by which you can connect with others, no matter how crazy the world may seem around you. Someone is always going to need that word.”
Jackson’s confidence in moving ahead with a new venture gave him an even stronger platform from which to speak to young artists. When a nervous 11-year-old in the audience shakily asked him for acting guidance, Jackson praised her bravery and gave her a round of applause before offering his advice.
“The line between excitement and nerves/fear is super, super thin,” he told her. “The thing that erases that line is practice. Don’t ever stop working hard. I’m glad you found something you love, so love it back by doing it.”
He also encouraged the artists gathered to always choose authenticity in their work and to support each other. It doesn’t mean one day getting your pick of roles (even actors with three starring roles on Broadway, a Grammy and an Emmy have to audition), but he said, “if you stick with it long enough, who you are dictates what kind of work you do get.”
The Strauch-Mosse Fall 2018 Visiting Artist is Pulitzer Prize-winning author Colson Whitehead, who will speak at Lesley on Oct. 30.