Nathan Louis Jackson, an acclaimed playwright who grappled with serious issues like the death penalty, homophobia and gun violence — and was also known for his work on television shows like “Luke Cage,” a Netflix series about a Black superhero — died on Aug. 22 at his home in Lenexa, Kan., a suburb of Kansas City. He was 44.
His wife, Megan Mascorro-Jackson, confirmed the death. She said that she did not know the cause, but that Mr. Jackson had had cardiac problems over the past few years, including an aortic dissection and an aortic aneurysm.
Mr. Jackson was still attending the Juilliard School when his play “Broke-ology,” premiered in 2008 at the Williamstown Theater Festival in Massachusetts. The story of a Black family in a poor neighborhood of Kansas City, Kan., where Mr. Jackson grew up, it focuses on the confrontation between two brothers over the care of their father, William (played by Wendell Pierce), who has a debilitating case of multiple sclerosis — a disease that Mr. Jackson’s father, who died in 2001, also had.
Reviewing the play in The Boston Globe, Louise Kennedy wrote that “what makes Jackson’s writing feel true and fresh — aside from its great humor”— was the way he portrayed the brothers. Malcolm, she noted, “isn’t just a selfish striver,” nor is Ennis “just a resigned martyr” — and William “isn’t just a passive victim.”
A year later, after Mr. Jackson received his artist diploma in playwriting from Juilliard, “Broke-ology” opened at the Off Broadway Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center.
“‘Broke-ology’ is a decidedly imperfect work,” Robert Feldberg wrote in The Record of Hackensack, N.J., “but it’s a very promising debut in the big time for a playwright with a rare quality: heart.”
Mr. Jackson’s next play, “When I Come to Die,” explored the emotional turmoil of a death row inmate whose execution goes awry — the drug cocktail that was supposed to kill him managed only to stop his heart temporarily — forcing him to wonder what to do with an unexpected extension of his life, and if he will face another execution.
“I started thinking about people in weird time positions, and these cats know exactly how much time they have left on this earth,” he said of death row inmates in an interview with The New York Times in 2011, when the play was running Off Broadway at the Duke Theater, a production of Lincoln Center Theater’s program for emerging playwrights. “But what happens if you get more of it?”
Although Mr. Jackson established an early place for his work in New York City, he remained close to his Midwestern roots. In addition to living in Kansas, he was the playwright in residence at the Kansas City Repertory Theater, in Missouri, from 2013 to 2019.
That theater staged productions of “When I Come to Die” and “Broke-ology” and the world premieres of his “Sticky Traps,” about a woman’s response to protests by a homophobic preacher at the funeral of her gay son, who had killed himself, and “Brother Toad,” about the reactions in the Kansas City community to the shooting of two Black teenagers.
“The beautiful thing about his writing is that he never told the audience what to think,” Angela Gieras, the executive director of the Kansas City Rep, said in a phone interview. “He’d share a story that was compelling and truthful and let the people have their own conversations.”
Nathan Louis Jackson was born on Dec. 4, 1978, in Lawrence, Kan. His father, Cary, was a heating and cooling service technician. His mother, Bessie (Brownlee) Jackson, was a preschool teacher.
Nathan said that he was not a good student in high school, and that he studied as little as he could.
“Ironically, I failed English,” he told Informed Decisions, a Kansas State University blog, in 2017. “I didn’t want to read Shakespeare.”
He graduated from Kansas City Kansas Community College with an associate degree in 1999. At Kansas State, where he majored in theater, he made his first attempt at playwriting by creating monologues for forensics competitions.
“I’m there in the Midwest, and there ain’t no other Black folks doing this, so I’d just end up doing August Wilson every time,” he told The Times. “I wanted to do a piece that speaks for me, so I said, ‘I’ll just write my own stuff.’”
Mr. Jackson wrote two plays in college that were recognized after his graduation by the Kennedy Center. He won the Lorraine Hansberry Playwriting Award twice, for “The Last Black Play” and “The Mancherios,” which he adapted into “Broke-ology,” and the Mark Twain Comedy Playwriting Award, also for “The Last Black Play.”
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 2003, Mr. Jackson acted in a children’s theater, took graduate courses in environmental science and writing, and worked as the manager of a barbecue restaurant.
He moved to New York City to attend Juilliard in 2007. He and his wife lived in a diverse neighborhood there, and he remembered seeing people from all over the world on the subway.
But at the theater, “I did not see that,” he said in an interview with KCUR-FM, a public radio station in Kansas City, Mo., in 2016, “What I saw was predominantly white, older, and with a little money in their pockets.”
He strove to write plays featuring “people marginalized by poverty, incarceration or gun violence,” Ms. Mascarro-Jackson said in a phone interview.
“Lots of times they were Black characters,” she added, “because that’s what he knew.”
In addition to his wife, Mr. Jackson is survived by his mother; a daughter, Amaya; a son, Savion; a sister, Ebony Maddox; and a brother, Wardell.
Over the last decade, while continuing to work in the theater, Mr. Jackson also wrote episodes of several TV series, including “13 Reasons Why,” “Resurrection,” “S.W.A.T.,” “Southland,” Shameless” and “Luke Cage,” for which he was also an executive story editor. He spent a lot of time in Los Angeles, where he suffered the aortic dissection in 2019.
“The series makes a bigger, grander statement about African American men and how we view them,” he told The Kansas City Star in 2016, referring to “Luke Cage,” a Marvel show whose title character is a former convict (played by Mike Colter) with superhuman strength and unbreakable skin who solves crimes in Harlem.
He added: “It is undoubtedly a Black show. But at the same time, it’s just a superhero show. We deal with something all the other superheroes deal with. We just do it from a different standpoint.”
Richard Sandomir is an obituaries writer. He previously wrote about sports media and sports business. He is also the author of several books, including “The Pride of the Yankees: Lou Gehrig, Gary Cooper and the Making of a Classic.” More about Richard Sandomir
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