Broke-ology had its professional premiere last year in Williamstown, Massachusetts, but its author, Nathan Louis Jackson, says that "the story has been in my heart for a long time." Sitting in one of LCT's rehearsal rooms at the beginning of a workday earlier this week, Jackson elaborated. "The father figure in Broke-ology suffers from MS, and so did my father, who passed in 2001. He was a big inspiration for me when it came time to write the play."
That character, called William in the drama, shares other qualities with Jackson's father. "My dad used to fix air conditioners in our neighborhood when I was growing up, just like William." And just as the sons in the play - Ennis and Malcolm - remember their father being around frequently during their childhood, so does Jackson remember the good times with his dad. "He worked hard, but somehow he was always there."
Jackson's play is much too good to be reduced to autobiography, but I will point out one more similarity: Kansas City. That's the play's locale, and the place where the dramatist grew up. "Yes, I grew up in Kansas City, Kansas," Jackson confesses. "I was a good student in grade school, but I didn't like high school at first. There wasn't an outlet for my creativity. Then in junior year I got involved in theater, which made a big difference." Jackson also excelled in forensics.
He headed for Kansas State with a group of friends. "They have a decent, small theater department," Jackson says, adding that he also got involved in the school's Ebony Theater. "That was a small, student-run theater troupe, whose mission is to do African-American work, by both new and existing writers." Two of Jackson's undergraduate plays were performed in Washington, D.C., one of them at the Kennedy Center.
Jackson's talent, in other words, was being recognized. That gift took him to Juilliard, from which he received a playwriting degree earlier this year. (He received his Kansas State degree in theater in 2003, and is six credits short of a second degree, in environmental science.) "I did a first draft of Broke-ology, Jackson says, "during my first semester at Juilliard. I did a version of the story earlier than that, but 90 percent of it is different - that's why I call the Juilliard version the first one. "
At Juilliard, Jackson also received a commission from LCT3, the part of Lincoln Center Theater that presents the work of exciting young playwrights. The commission resulted in When I Come To Die, a drama about a prisoner on death row in Texas, which is scheduled to be produced by LCT3 the season after this. "I've had family members who have been in and out of prison," Jackson says, "so that may be one of the things that inspired me to write something set in prison. Writing something about somebody on death row was a real technical challenge, since somebody like that is in a cell for 23 hours a day."
Jackson's work is taking him beyond the "cell" of a theater. "Earlier this summer," he says, "I got a gig to work an NBC program called 'Southland.' It's a cop show, but it isn't a procedural. It's character-based, which is great for a playwright." Jackson plans to return to that assignment when Broke-ology is finished.
BRENDAN LEMON is the American theater critic for the Financial Timesand the editor of lemonwade.com.