Robert Jason Jackson took residence in Philadelphia this Spring to play Lear in Quintessence Theatre’s production of the Shakespeare classic. (Read the Phindie review here.) He spoke to Henrik Eger about his background, the role, and working with Quintessence.
[Quintessence Theatre Group at the Sedgwick Theater, 7137 Germantown Ave. (Mt. Airy)] March 19-April 20, 2019; quintessencetheatre.org
Henrik Eger: Tell us how you began your creative life.
Robert Jason Jackson: I come from a family of artists. On my mom’s side there are many painters, writers, and musicians. I was fascinated at an early age with drawing and painting. My favorite artists were Gaugin and El Greco: Gaugin for his subjects and use of color—beautiful brown women with long dark hair—and El Greco for his religiosity and great mystery. Aged 6 or 7, I was enrolled into the Cincinnati Art Academy adjacent to the Cincinnati Art Museum.
This fascination with art included an interest in music and performing. I performed with the Cincinnati Boys Choir and played violin from age 9 until 14. I definitely have my parents to thank for their support in my interests as artist and performer.
In addition, I have always had a great love for the written and “spoken word.” This has continued throughout my professional life, as I am drawn to the literature of the theatre and especially the classical theatre. My interest in history and culture has always been with me, and my work in the theatre is a real and natural progression from my life as a child.
Henrik: Often, theatergoers and critics talk about your amazing voice. For example,Patty Jackson’s recent interview with you on King Lear. Tell us more about the evolution of your voice over the course of time.
Robert: I suppose my studies in vocal training did affect the sound. But honestly, much of what you hear from me is natural and genetically inherited from my father and maternal grandfather—both had beautiful bass-baritone voices. When my mom’s father was living, his children—my aunts and uncles—could not distinguish his voice from mine on the phone. When I’d call, we’d have a conversation for several minutes—with them thinking I was their father.
Henrik: When was the first time that you experienced “non-traditional casting,” and how did audiences respond then, compared to audiences now?
Robert: What is considered “non-traditional casting” has been in practice long before I came on the scene. Joseph Papp can be credited for being a producer who was a forerunner in the practice of non-traditional casting. Actors James Earl Jones and Gloria Foster come to mind as two among many actors of color who played wonderful roles from the classical repertoire.
From my beginnings in the theater world, I’ve been cast this way. In high school, one of my big roles was Sir Evelyn Oakleigh in the musical Anything Goes. I was also cast in several Molière plays in high school.
In college, I played roles written for black actors and roles not specifically for blacks.
My focus as an actor is on the work at hand, with no real concern whether or not the audience will accept me in a particular role based on my ethnicity—that is not my job or responsibility. When a director or producer hires me to play a role, whether written as a black character or not, my process as an actor is the same.
Henrik: You talked about having had many role models over the course of time, either on stage or on the screen.
Robert: We’ve all had role models. I’ve been inspired and mentored my many—not only black artists. When I see others achieve and accomplish what seems impossible, it encourages me to work harder, to not give up on my own dreams and aspirations.
Henrik: What historical shifts, if any, do you see in how earlier actors performed Shakespeare, compared to actors in our own time?
Robert: Acting styles have changed over time as society and culture have also changed. “Method acting” and film and television acting have definitely had an influence on style changes in the theatre. There is a far more “natural” delivery of verse, for example, and not the stentorian “singing” style delivery from an actor of the era of John Gielgud.
Henrik: What did you do to prepare for the role of Lear?
Robert: Much of the challenge in Lear involves not allowing oneself to become intimidated by the enormous amount of history and tradition, as well as the wealth of documentation and criticism over the centuries on this one play.
I did a lot of research, perhaps more than usual. The internet and YouTube were valuable resources, although much of my research was from books already in my library: Shakespeare’s Tragedies edited by Laurence Lerner, Prefaces to Shakespeare by Harley Granville Barker, A. C. Bradley’s “Lecture VII on King Lear,” as well as different editions of the play.
While researching, I discovered the “ancestral power” within the context of the legend of Lear’s father Bladud, a practitioner of magic and necromancy—the practice of communicating with the dead to predict the future. Shakespeare certainly knew about this myth, as he included several scenes of Lear calling on the gods and dark forces during his curses.
Henrik: Why did you want to take on one of the most fiendishly difficult roles in Shakespeare?
Robert: I’ve wanted to play Lear for some time. Considering the complexities of this tragedy, I wanted to have my first experience with the role while I still had the strength, vitality, and energy to do it.
Although a tremendous challenge, Lear is a feast for any actor playing him. The multi-faceted, mercurial aspects of the character, plus Lear’s madness, are extremely demanding, and not easy to portray. However, the rewards are superabundant for both actor and audience.
Henrik: What is your favorite or most thought-provoking scene from King Lear?
Robert: When Lear decides to pray while Kent, in disguise, and the Fool try to get him to enter the hovel (in Act III, Scene 4). This is a real turning point, after Lear has lost the battle of wills between his two daughters and been shut out of doors and into the terrible storm. Befriended by only Kent and the Fool, —basically homeless and totally distraught—he has what we might now call a nervous breakdown.
Yet, in the midst of this physical and mental chaos, Lear experiences a moment of enlightenment, self-awareness, introspection, repentance, and humility in his concern for those far less fortunate than himself—even in his lowly state. It is a moment of tremendous vulnerability and quiet passion.
Henrik: You have worked with different directors on Shakespeare productions. What distinguishes Alexander Burns in his way of directing King Lear?
Robert: Alex Burns is completely clear on exactly what the text is saying and how he wants the actors to interpret the text. These plays were written so long ago, and our contemporary culture has become so illiterate, one almost needs a translator for today’s audience.
This makes Alex’s approach all the more important, especially with Shakespeare, in presenting well-spoken, clear, accessible interpretations of classical works. Alex is supportive and nurturing, allowing the actor to explore the many dimensions of the character in a safe creative environment. Alex was quite minimal in his direction with me. He was pleased with what I brought to the role and our creative personalities are very compatible.
Henrik: What are your plans for the next few years?
Robert: I plan to continue as I have all of my life, to face the challenges that come my way and hopefully inspire and mentor others, as I’ve been mentored and inspired. This process includes performance and education.
Henrik: Thank you, Robert—and everyone involved in this most extraordinary production.