Broadway Audiences Hear Chris Jackson's Holler: Leading Man Plays Three Starring Roles in One Season

Christopher Jackson, who has starred in three Broadway shows in less than six months, talks with Playbill.com about hitting his stride with no signs of slowing down.

Christopher Jackson
Christopher Jackson

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Having starred in the short-lived Bronx Bombers, the critical darling After Midnight and the recently opened Holler If Ya Hear Me within the past six months, Broadway veteran Christopher Jackson's career gives new meaning to the term "When it rains, it pours."

"It's been a very full year, filled with a lot of expectations and a lot of really fantastic people," Jackson told Playbill.com. "Sure, there have been disappointments, but at every turn, I've learned more than I could have wished for. I'm grateful."

Mainstream theatre critics may not have fully embraced the Tupac Shakur-inspired musical currently playing at the Palace Theatre, but the Metropolis, IL, native is no stranger to ambitious Broadway productions. In 1997, Jackson made his debut in The Lion King, which at the time was considered Disney's most daring foray on The Great White Way.

Starting off as a member of the ensemble and then moving up to the lead role of Simba, the American Musical and Dramatic Academy (AMDA) alum — hired an hour before the production's first official rehearsal — described the show as a "life-changing event in so many ways." "Talk about getting shot out of the cannon," he continued. "At the time, I had seen the movie but I didn't really didn't know what I was in for. I don't think anyone did. And the opportunity to work with Tom Schumacher, Julie Taymor and Disney was pretty special. It was historical and continues to be a historical piece of theatre."

In between then and now, Jackson married the love of his life and became the father of two. He also starred in a string of Broadway shows including In The Heights (which won the 2008 Tony Award for Best Musical) and Memphis (winner of the 2010 Tony for Best Musical). In 2012, he joined the company of Jack Viertel's critically-acclaimed jazz era musical revue Cotton Club Parade, which played sold-out shows at City Center before being morphed into a Warren Carlyle-helmed Broadway spectacular rechristened as After Midnight.

Jackson in Bronx Bombers
Photo by Joan Marcus

2014 presented much promise for Jackson, now 38, when he took on the role of champion baseball player Derek Jeter in the Yogi Berra-centered play Bronx Bombers. "That experience was fantastic because what a great group of guys to be around," he reflected. "I love baseball with a passion so that's another one of those things where it wasn't work going in everyday to put on the pinstripes of New York and have star status with #2 on your back."

Unfortunately, the Eric Simonson-scripted and directed drama struck out at the box office — officially opening Feb. 6 and officially closing March 2 at the Circle In the Square Theatre. Through the years, a true veteran can't help but learn about the highs and lows of The Great White Way, and Jackson is one of them. "I don't know why it didn't work. It was not due to a lack of effort on everyone's part. But Broadway is a hard business, and sometimes things work and sometimes they don't. So at the end of the day, it's just a tremendous group of people trying to tell a story in a good way, and ultimately it didn't pan out."

Hopefully, his latest gig won't meet a similar fate. Critical daggers have already been thrown about the Kenny Leon-directed/ Todd Kreidler-scripted musical, which also stars Saul Williams, Tonya Pinkins, Saycon Sengbloh and John Earl Jelks, among others. Ticket sales haven't been the most promising for the show that has been Leon's passion project for over a decade. But for Jackson, who was featured in After Midnight for a brief spell last spring before starting rehearsals for Holler, the gritty musical is "a very important piece of theatre."

As Vertus, he is front and center playing a drug dealer with a heart of gold. His best friend John recently finished a prison sentence and doesn't speak to him (since Vertus is now dating Corinne, who was a longtime love of John's). All of the urban drama is set to the backdrop of some of Shakur's most iconic songs including "I Get Around," "Me Against The World," "I Ain't Mad Atcha" and "California Love."

With the hip-hop flavored In The Heights already under his belt and his membership in the hip-hop Improv group Freestyle Love Supreme, Jackson is no slouch when comes to a full understanding and deep appreciation for the music, the culture and all of its nuances. "I could not have imagined it in a million years, but I am delighted every time I go to work and am reminded of the fact that, as an artist, I feel like I am able to promote and to help bring to the forefront a forum that's really important and one that at times have been marginalized as something or the other."

Jackson in Holler If Ya Hear Me
Photo by Joan Marcus

"Many folks have constantly tried to put [hip-hop] in a box and it's to show that you can't if something great," he added. "This is the voice of our generation just as rock music was the expression of the previous generations, and it was profound and it shaped Broadway in a profound way as well."

Jackson describes himself as "soulful" and "hardworking" but said nothing prepared him for the education he's receiving under Leon's tutelage.

"Kenny is one of the greatest directors I've ever had the pleasure of being in the room with," he revealed. "It took a while to figure out what he wanted because he has his own language and he has his own way of going through the day and through the work, but the greatest thing I've learned from Kenny is to come prepared, come ready to be honest, leave all of your habits a the door."

"He's fond of saying 'Don't let your habits be your choice,'" he continued. "And in a lot of ways, he's made me a better actor because he's allowed me to kind of come in the door as I am and put all of my stuff, all of my performance things, leave them outside of the room and just be real and in the moment."

Looking ahead, Jackson said his dream role is Black, which was originated by Taye Diggs in Andrew Lippa's musical The Wild Party, which won rave reviews and a string of theatre awards including the 2000 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Music. "I recently performed at 54 Below with Andrew and we brought back some songs from the show, and I have to say that Black is a role that I am absolutely intrigued by and I would love to play. I love that music. I've known Andrew for a long time and getting the chance to work with him and doing some of that music made it clear to me that there's some life there. I would love to play that role. Since doing that show in April, that's been something that I've been thinking about quite often.

"I love the idea of being a part of projects that appeal to folks that necessarily don't think of themselves as theatregoers and opening up that world to folks who wouldn't normally be there," Jackson concluded. "I love meeting that guy who says, 'I don't go to Broadway musicals but I came to see you guys and I really loved it,' or 'I think I'm going to come back to another one and try something else.' Those are the kinds of encounters that remind me that what I'm able to do and what I'm a part of does have some resonance in the world."