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Jawan M. Jackson, star of Broadway hit Ain’t Too Proud, dishes on life on and off the boards in this exclusive interview

Jawan M. Jackson With Dog
Jawan M. Jackson with his Shiba Inu Haarlem Pic credit: Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

Jawan M. Jackson, the costar of Broadway sensation, Ain’t Too Proud — The Life and Times of The Temptations, is a performer who you are not soon to forget.  His rich bass voice and comedic chops will serve him in future performances, but you will want to catch him as Melvin Franklin before it is too late.

The Tony Award-winning musical, Ain’t Too Proud — The Life and Times of The Temptations, tells the story of the most successful R&B group of all time, while not only showing friendship and interpersonal relationships but also showing the times of civil unrest that they occupied.

The story begins on the streets of Detroit where they were discovered by Berry Gordy. The Temptations had an incredible 42 top 10 hits, with 14 reaching No. 1.

The book is by Dominique Morisseau, the direction is by Tony Award-winner Des McAnuff, and it was choreographed by Tony Award-winner Sergio Trujillo.

Being part of Ain’t Too Proud is very close to home for Jackson, who is a proud native of Detroit, Michigan. He graduated from Eastern Michigan University and began his career as a radio personality on Detroit’s top radio station WGPR Hot 107.5 FM.

Seven years ago, Jackson moved to New York City to follow his dream of becoming an actor on Broadway. His first professional Broadway gig was in the record-breaking hit, Motown the Musical.

Jackson has appeared on the 2013 Tony Awards, Good Morning America, Live with Kelly and Michael, and Netflix’s The Get Down, just to name a few.

Jackson was approached by the legendary Whitney Houston, who gave him advice that he has carried throughout his career: “Put God first, stand on the foundation that was set for you and love everyone.”

Giving back is very important to Jackson. In fact, upon his graduation, he successfully helped develop and bring to life a program for high school students who have a passion for pursuing the arts such as Rosie’s Theater Kids and the PS22 Chorus.

Jawan M. Jackson spoke with Monsters & Critics about his early life in Detroit, his drive to be an actor, how he came to be on Broadway, what makes Ain’t Too Proud — The Life and Times of the Temptations special, what his future goals are as an actor, what he likes to do for fun, and more.

Monsters & Critics: You actually are from the city and state where Motown started.

Jawan M. Jackson:  Yes, born and raised.

M&C: Please tell me about that.

Jawan M. Jackson: Well, I’m a Detroit kid. I actually moved down here seven years ago to pursue my dream on Broadway.

M&C: Now, so do you live in New York now?

Jawan M. Jackson: I do.

Jawan M. Jackson talks about his beginnings

M&C: Now, what would you like to say about your family and childhood background?

Jawan M. Jackson: Now, I have an interesting family background. So, on my mother’s side, my grandfather is a pastor. And on my father’s side, my cousins are pastors, and so I was born and raised in the church. Needless to say, I have a very Christian background. Singing in the church always, doing something in the church community. And my mother and family were a great part of the community, the neighborhood I grew up in.

I am the oldest so I had a lot of responsibility, but I had a great childhood.

I went to Detroit public schools. And that kind of shaped the guy I am today because I got exposed to so much diversity and so many things outside that I would never have experienced. My mother really wanted to keep me active in sports and activities to make sure I wasn’t into trouble, and so I did marching band, I did football, I started theater, I ran track.

I participated in the debate club, I did everything. I was my class vice president. I was very active in school in my community. But before, I wanted to be a chef [laughter]. And then, when the chef didn’t work out, “Okay. I want to train animals [laughter].” That’s what I thought I was going to go to college for. I hoped that I’d become the dolphin trainer [laughter] before choosing acting.

M&C: Dolphins? That’s a way away from Michigan.

Jawan M. Jackson: Oh, absolutely.  I grew up watching the Animal Planet and Food Network. Those were my two favorite stations to watch as a child.

M&C: So, how did you train your voice because the bass voice is something you’re kind of born with but very hard to fine-tune?

Jawan M. Jackson: Yeah. I feel like this is gifted to me. And I didn’t reach for it because I wasn’t a professionally-trained singer at all. Everything that I knew came from people that I watched and emulated things that I heard. So I never had professional training. Everything came from the church. And I actually didn’t really fully realize the tone of my voice until maybe I was like 20, 21.

Before that, my voice had changed when I was 12 years old. So I always had the makings of a deep voice at 12. I tried to sing tenor and try to sing really, really high. And I realized, that’s not making me unique. And I need to find my own voice because everybody is singing high.

Everybody is telling me to sing. And it was my choir director who’s like, “You got all these lows. You need to use it.” And so I sing my church solo. And then the response I got from the audience, I was like, “I actually like this. Let me explore this more.” And then it started working.

And that’s when I got a voice teacher, my voice teacher. She worked with me and just helped me learn the colors of my voice, the different colors of my voice and  I’ve been using ever since. And I think it’s just something that sets me apart. And that’s what makes me unique. And the thing I felt that was ugly was my biggest asset.

M&C: Hmm. A very good way to look at it. But I think you have a beautiful voice. That’s great.

Jawan M. Jackson: Well, thank you. Thank you.

M&C: And now, can you remind me again where you went to college?

Jawan M. Jackson: I went to Eastern Michigan University.

M&C: Okay. And now, has theater always been your thing? Or are you planning more to branch out to TV and movies?

Jawan M. Jackson: Theater has always been a love of mine. But I do want to branch out into television and film. I love the aspect of making movies. I want to do action movies. I want to play a villain [laughter].  I want to get my hands on some bad character that I can just play because I’m always playing the good guy or the lovable one. That works, but I’m a more well-rounded actor. And I want to show people that I can play the evil man [laughter]. An antagonist of something. So I’m really, really excited about what’s to come. And hopefully, it’s going to happen soon.

Jawan M. Jackson on Ain’t Too Proud

M&C: You are really fun to watch. Now, tell me a little bit about Ain’t Too Proud for our audience who has not seen it yet.

Jawan M. Jackson: Okay. So Ain’t Too Proud is a story about five men. Their journey, their struggles, and their sacrifices. And it goes between chronicling them from the time that they formed a group in high school to their deaths individually. And I played Melvin Franklin who is one of the original, longest-lasting members. Along with Otis Williams.

He went through it all. Through all his albums, through all his sacrifices, through all the changes that happened. He stuck with Melvin — I mean with Otis who is also his best friend until he passed. And it’s a journey in the story of heartbreak, racism, just things that you had to go through. And people know the Temptations the group but they don’t know the names behind the music. And so, I think that this show is different from the typical jukebox musical that people think that they’re going to come see, is so much more layered with depth of the story.

And it just has a great story by Dominique Morisseau who’s also from Detroit. And my hometown sister. And I think that you’re going to leave not coming in the same way you came. You’re going to leave with an eye awakening experience.  You’re going to appreciate it more because you’re going to see the sacrifices that they had to make this great music that you love today.

M&C: Well, it’s so very similar to me to Jersey Boys in a very good way.

Jawan M. Jackson: Yeah. So we have the same creative team as Jersey Boys. And so, it has that feel.  So Des McAnuff and Sergio Trujillo who are behind Jersey Boys. They kept [inaudible] to very specific on what he wants. And so it has elements. I feel like everything that Des does, he’s going to put his signature something in it. So he loves to work with LED screens and loves to work with — he’s very, very, very good at transitions. And so, and kind of solid colors to let the story tell itself. So everything that’s in the background is kind of based [inaudible] what’s happening on stage and the moving parts. They’re all kind of similar. And so, I think that those are the similarities that you find in Jersey Boy versus Ain’t Too Proud. So it’s two different stories.

Derrick Baskin, Jelani Remy, Jawan M. Jackson, Ephraim Sykes, and James Harkness in Ain’t Too Proud. Pic credit: Matthew Murphy

M&C: So what do you like best about your character?

Jawan M. Jackson: What I love best about my character is that he has a complete arc. The audience gets to see him from a little shy, timid mama’s boy to a fully-realized adult who has suffered through the good times and the bad times even when he didn’t feel like it. It just let me use my comedic chops a little bit and have fun with that. And also, I always say that the bass singers and the bass instruments are always the unsung heroes of any group in any ensemble in anything. Because without the bass you don’t have any foundation stone.

It’s kind of like the [inaudible] with the foundation of the Temptations. He made that signature sound. And so, it’s just fun just to sing with the other four guys and be on stage every day telling the story. And I get to do it in a way that’s positive to highlight and pay homage to a man that has given so much to music as we know it. And people like me growing up looking for idols and people to go to who has unique voices. And Melvin was that guy.

M&C: And who do you think would like the show?

Jawan M. Jackson: Everybody. I think anybody with good listening ears and a great eye. Even if you don’t know any of the songs the thing about the Temptations story is that it’s universal. And so, regardless if you don’t know who the artist was, when you hear the songs you’re like, “Oh, I know this song.” Because it’s been covered in so many ways. And so, you have people who have teenagers who have come to the show and they’re like, “I didn’t know anything about the Temptations but I knew these songs. And I didn’t know how I knew them. Because I didn’t know that this was the group that made them.”

And so, you kind of get the background story and the story of the man, like I said, behind the music. Because we all grew up listening to some form or version of the music of the Temptations via covered through contemporary artists of today or another artist from back in the day. And so, I think that’s what connects us is the music. And once you get past the music you get to hear the story.

M&C: I absolutely love the show. And I’m familiar with the Temptations. And something I absolutely hated was the audience. For me, the audience was boring.   It seemed like they had never been to a concert before. And they loved it. They loved the sound. But when the actors were clapping they weren’t clapping with them.  Does that happen all the time? Or did I come on a bad audience day?

Jawan M. Jackson: So, no, it doesn’t happen all the time. I feel like it’s a different experience every night. I feel like if you’re looking at things and I’m being technical usually the beginning of the week — Tuesdays, Thursdays, and sometimes Saturday evenings, and Sundays — are very mild and chill.

Wednesday matinees and our Saturday matinees and then our Friday night or Wednesday, they’re a little bit more lively. And you tend to find that those are the church groups or the groups that come from out of town. And the people who are coming who love the Temptations, who love the show, and they’re a little bit more livelier.

M&C: With weekday performance days, it’s usually the professional theatergoers who want to be courteous to the show. Then the people that come all the time, they’re kind of like the older crowd. So they’ll give you no love during, but then they’ll give you all the love after.

Jawan M. Jackson: Toronto was a really good city to show us different types of audiences. That’s the best for us — the cast — because, Toronto, they didn’t clap at all during the show. There was a clap here or a woo here, but they — for the most part, because that’s the nature of their theatre — they’re not allowed to clap for us. It’s kind of looked down upon. And then, at the end, though, there’re standing ovations, screaming and hollering.

And so it let us know that we can’t gauge if a crowd is loving us versus on the applause. You just have to do the work. So that helped me to be consistent in my show every time. But whether they’re very excited or they’re not responsive at all, I learned to do a consistent show and not base it off the energy.

M&C: Now, what does your workweek look like?

Jawan M. Jackson: My work week is very sporadic. So I do eight shows a week, and usually, we’re into the theater by a half-hour each show day. So if the show’s at 8:00 we’re in by 7:30. But during the day, I’m usually having interviews or I’m auditioning. Because I’m still auditioning and, as an actor, you want to make sure that you’re — now that I’m in a Broadway show and I’m visible — that I’m meeting with casting directors, that I’m seeing people that can take my career forward. I’m looking for the next thing after my contract’s up.

So you kind of never stop working in the industry and your kind of space is filled with other things. And I’m trying to stay as fit and healthy, so I’m in the gym. Hanging with friends and catching up with people that I hadn’t caught up with because of the show schedule. And so I have a very productive day.

After I get off the phone with you, I’m going into the next thing. So it never stops. I feel like Mondays are my only day off, and I try to stay in the house as much as possible [laughter]. If I could stay in the house, I’ll be in the house watching Netflix [laughter].

M&C: I have one more kind of technical question about your schedule is that how do you rehearse and rehearse new people? Once a week, do you have to go in and just do a practice?

Jawan M. Jackson: Well, so not if a show is open. We have the rehearsal process in the beginning. So the top of February, we were rehearsing for three weeks. This rehearsal process for the Broadway show in this particular leg was very shorter than what we normally would have. And we would have six weeks to rehearse and they put the show up because we were on ready and the show hadn’t changed.

They cut the rehearsal process. So I’ve been doing previews. We were rehearsing during the day. So we’ll have 12-hour days and then we’ll do the show at night. But now that the show is open, it’s kind of frozen. So we don’t have to do any rehearsals now. We may have a cleanup rehearsal here and there. But we don’t rehearse that often.

The swings have a rehearsal I think three, four days of the week. So they’ll come in at like 12:00 and then be rehearsing until like 4:00 or they’ll come in and then rehearse during the show. So they’ll rehearse from 8:00 to 11:00 depending on the show’s schedule. And so they kind of like never stop working.

When you’re swinging and understudying, you’re being put in. You’re rehearsing all day. And I think that’s a skill set that’s very strong because I don’t think I can do it and be a swing. So more power to being a swing and understudy. But yeah. So I don’t rehearse. I just come in and do the show [laughter].

M&C: That’s good to know. I love those technical ideas with that. Now, Playbill mentioned that there’s a cause near and dear to your heart. Can you please tell me about it?

Jawan M. Jackson: Oh, absolutely. I support Rosie’s Theater Kids and the PS22 Chorus. I just love working with kids and teenagers and young men in particular because I think that arts education is very important to me in that I want to keep arts education in the schools, and make available for people who love entertainment and arts.  It is usually those programs that are the first to get cut in anything that we do in as far as public funding.

Those are always being cut like. PBS is another one that they’ve been trying to cut for years. But I think that I’m a PBS kid as well. I grew up watching Sesame Street and Carmen Sandiego [laughter] and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

I’m advocating keeping these programs and being mentors to children who don’t have positive mentors. I had all that growing up from Detroit. And I think because of it and because of it being available to me, it kept me out of trouble. It kept my mind stimulated. It kept me wanting to learn more, wanting to do more and being able to now pass it on to someone else because it was passed on to me.

And I think it’s my duty and my job because I was afforded it to be able to afford it to somebody else. Especially our young kids and our young teenagers because they’re out there. There’s so much trouble to get into and we’re losing them left and right. And I just want to make sure that there’s some type of positivity and some type of… if I can be a light to someone in that way that I can be. [I] love it working with these kids.

M&C: Now where about in New York do you live?

Jawan M. Jackson: I stay in Harlem. Yes. I’m a Harlem guy. I’ve been here ever since I moved to New York. That’s the only place I’ve ever lived. I think Harlem is special to me because it feels like home. It feels like Detroit. And I just fell in love with it and I was like, “When I move out here this is where I’ll be.” So I’ve been here ever since.

M&C: And what are some of your favorite local restaurants or haunts?

Jawan M. Jackson: Ooh, there’s so many I love. No. 1 in my top is Melba’s Restaurant. I also love Amy Ruth’s.

And my favorite dessert place in the city is called Make My Cake. And the owner, Miss Joanne, she makes the best cakes on this side of town. They’re so good and she has all kinds of cakes. And my very favorite is the vanilla buttercream butter dream. Ooh, I absolutely love it.

M&C: You’re making me hungry [laughter].  Now, is there anything you’d like to add about your personal life?

Jawan M. Jackson: I don’t have any kids but I would love to have kids soon actually. I want to build a family. So that’d be a goal but I am currently not in a relationship so I guess the first thing is to be to just find one [laughter]. I love kids so I know that I’m eventually going to have one. And I want four but I’ll probably start with one first [laughter].

M&C: Good plan. Now, let’s look forward in time about 75 years. You’re about 100. What would you like your legacy to be when you look back on your life?

Jawan M. Jackson: Oh, wow. I want my legacy to be that I lived my life to the fullest and that anybody that I came in contact with was changed in a positive way. I want to make sure that I leave something for people that the generations and generations could use and utilize.

I want to make sure that my [inaudible] is fully realized and that there was no stone unturned. And that there’s something like I said that people can use that I created in a positive way, whether it be a production company that is currently still running, whether it’s a school that I started and created or organization that I built. And I helped people put kids through college, get access to financial aid, some type of scholarship program or something. I just want to effect positive change.

M&C: Sounds like a good legacy to me. Now, when you’re not working, what do you like to do for fun?

Jawan M. Jackson: Ooh, I like to do, aside from being at home, hanging out with friends, I do like to cook. And I’ve got my dogs, so we might go to the park. We have dog-dates with friends, I am looking into getting a studio, so I’m trying to create new music, which is scary, but [laughter] you learn at the same time.

What I like to do in my spare time, is just hang out with my friends and family. I’m a family guy, so I don’t get to see them much. So FaceTime’s my biggest asset right now. You know, seeing their faces and staying involved in any capacity. I have many godchildren, so I stay involved in each and every one of their lives. And so that’s my goal—to sit with them, spend time with them, or talk to them.

M&C: And what kind of dog do you have?

Jawan M. Jackson: I have a Shiba Inu.

M&C: You’re kidding, that’s one of my favorite breeds. What’s his or her name?

Jawan M. Jackson: Haarlem.

M&C: Now, what are you watching on TV these days? Or streaming whatever you’re watching?

Jawan M. Jackson:  Oh my goodness, I work so much.  Legends of Tomorrow is one of my favorite shows. I watch Black, of course. Umbrella Academy. I’m watching Dear White People.  I finished all of Game of Thrones.

M&C: Now, how would you like fans to connect with you?

Jawan M. Jackson: I’m on all social media, I’m on Instagram. My name’s Dewan Jackson. And then on Twitter, I’m @dewanjackson4. The number four. And then I have a Facebook fan page, Dewan. I love to be tweeted or to be Instagrammed.

View this post on Instagram

Old to me New to You!! 😎

A post shared by Jawan M. Jackson (@jawanjackson) on

M&C: I wish you luck on that, I hope it goes well for you. You’re very fun to watch the show. I hope now it opens to more and more opportunities for you.  Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Jawan M. Jackson: I guess I’ll add, so just be kind. You know? Be kind to someone today [laughter].

Jawan M. Jackson can be seen in Ain’t Too Proud, now playing at the Imperial Theatre on Broadway.


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