Since the coronavirus pandemic hit, Broadway star Christopher Jackson, who originated the role of George Washington in the hit musical "Hamilton," has been muddling through life in lockdown like the rest of us.
"I'm trying not to drive my children crazy. I have been trying to get as much reading in as I can and (doing) a lot of writing," he said in a Zoom call with reporters on Tuesday, ahead of a live performance Saturday that will stream from New York City to the audiences of 17 performing arts groups around the country, including Texas Performing Arts in Austin.
The show, which will feature Jackson performing with a live band at New World Stages in NYC, includes "a little bit of ‘In the Heights,’ a little bit ‘Hamilton’ and what I think is going to be a really beautiful tribute to one of my idols, Harry Belafonte," he said.
Jackson jumped at the opportunity to put on the performance.
"I have been itching, like so many others, to get onstage," he said.
He also was excited about the opportunity to help a regional theater industry that has been devastated by the pandemic. "To know that we were going to be doing something that was literally going to help people stay employed, help people, just to ease the burdens off of all of these centers that are dedicated to serving the public" was inspiring, he said.
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Jackson, who grew up in the "artistic desert" of Cairo, Ill., a small town on the southern tip of the state, understands the importance of regional theater hubs. His "first real taste of theater" was at a nearby community college that was able to raise funds and "find enough people to populate the cast" to put on a show every other year, he said.
Since he found success on Broadway, he’s had the opportunity to tour extensively. Visiting performing arts centers around the country has shown him the breadth of work these organizations do for their communities, from camps to dance programs to Shakespeare experiences. They expose kids who, "much like me, didn't really have a lot of those opportunities" to the arts, he said.
He believes these experiences have intrinsic value, even if kids have no interest in a career in the arts. "The experience of learning themselves through this art, it's just, it's foundational. It stays with them forever," he said.
One of Jackson’s foundational artistic experiences was joining the cast of Freestyle Love Supreme, a hip-hop-based improvisational music and comedy troupe whose co-creators included Lin-Manuel Miranda and "Hamilton" director Thomas Kail. A new documentary on the troupe, "We Are Freestyle Love Supreme," was released last month on Hulu. Jackson said working with the troupe shaped him as an artist and as a man "in every way imaginable."
Like many artists who came of age in the 1980s and ’90s, hip-hop was the soundtrack of his youth. He had done studio work with rap and R&B artists, but he had a very limited background in improvisation. It was an opportunity to "marry all of the things that were super, super important to me, artistically, but I was scared to death of it," he said.
The all-male Freestyle Love Supreme players created a warm and supportive environment with a love of hip-hop and an honest dedication to the art at the forefront. The positive energy and open love they shared reverberate through the documentary. The vibe is the opposite of what’s commonly referred to as toxic masculinity.
"We're not walking in there with anything to prove to one another; we're walking in and looking to see how we can support the idea that you're offering and vice versa," Jackson said.
Freestyle Love Supreme combined "all of what I wanted my career work, the thrust of it, to be," he said.
It opened his eyes to the possibilities of what kind of an artist he could be.
The other streaming release that’s occupied Jackson’s time since the pandemic shut down Broadway is, of course, the filmed performance of "Hamilton" now streaming on Disney+.
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"I finally got to enjoy my fellow company members’ work," Jackson said.
Like the rest of America, he was stunned by Renée Elise Goldsberry’s performance as Angelica Schuyler.
"It was a very delayed ‘aha’ moment, like, ‘Oh, that's why Renée won the Tony,’" he said with a laugh. "I think she deserves a Tony just because she's one of the most amazing women I've ever met in my life, a true sister. But, like, she's brilliant."
The fact that "Hamilton" premiered on Disney+ underscores the way the musical appeals to young people. Jackson said it’s been rewarding to see the show has expanded the way kids think about history, "the fact that they now see history as more than just names and dates on a piece of paper, but they get a sense of what history can be."
He believes one of the powerful things "Hamilton" has done is to take "these icons out of the statuary, off of the shelf," and recontextualize them "in stark contrast with the way that we've always learned what history was and what it meant," he said.
People tell Jackson they’ve started thinking of George Washington as him and not "this stuffy old white guy," he said.
"What I think it really talks about is the fact that there's a reality that's brought to bear in the imagination of children who are experiencing the show," Jackson said.
"We've been able to make a mark that will shape the way that they look at what they're learning from here on out," he added. "That's a pretty astounding thing."