Janeta Jackson has worked at a Disney theme park, on a cruise ship, and in various venues worldwide, and now she is breaking barriers, presumably, as the first African American Mary Poppins in professional theater in the United States. (According to internet searches done by Jackson, as well as myself, neither of us could identify any other African American playing the same role.)
Mary Poppins, which makes it’s debut at Children’s Theatre of Charlotte on Friday, October 6th, is one of six performances in the Mainstage Series during the 2017-2018 season. Other shows include, “The Snowy Day”, “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever”, and “Cassius Clay”, among others.
Though it’s never been done, we shouldn’t be surprised by CTC’s selection of it’s main character. The theater has always embraced diversity by ensuring their performances reflects it’s patrons. In fact, Jackson participated in “Ella’s Big Chance: A Jazz Age Cinderella” and “Elephant and Piggies: We Are in a Play” in 2015. This time, she has the lead role, adding another level of pressure.
“Being African American and getting chosen to play this role is an honor and a blessing. In the world of theater there is a lot of stereotypical casting. Nontraditional casting is rare. But they (the CTC directors) shared with me that I didn’t get the role because I was Black, I got the role because I was the best person. And that was comforting.”
The Florida native knows this is a huge responsibility. She understands that now, more than ever, she’s in a position to be a role model to those who come see the show. “There will be little girls that think, wow she looks like me. I can do that too. I didn’t see too many women, growing up, that I could identify with who were doing what I wanted to do.”
When asked about her most difficult role to date, Jackson attempts to think of a more challenging role than her current one. With mastering a British accent, tap dancing, and other surprises, she most certainly has her work cut out for her. Simply being THE lead whose name adorns the marquee is enough pressure. It helps that she has been training for this for years. Jackson grew up singing in her father’s church, despite her shy personality. This sparked her love of performing and followed her to high school where she took her first drama class. “This is kinda cool,” she simply thought. During her senior year, she wasn’t able to take drama during her regular schedule of classes, so she opted for the after-school drama program that allowed her to join a theater troop and perform musical theater at competitions. It’s not hard to believe that she soared, winning awards and countless other accolades.
After high school, Jackson chose Florida International University and ultimately graduated with a degree in Classical Voice Performance. She immediately began teaching vocal lessons and beginner’s piano for a music studio. Shortly after, she joined an acapella ensemble for the Miami Dolphins. It wasn’t until later, while talking to colleagues in the business, that she became aware of theater opportunities around the country and started applying and auditioning for various roles. At one point, she performed in a nearly 18 month long production in Branson, Missouri.
“It’s the gypsy life,” She laughs. “And at times I miss my family. But I’m a believer in Jesus Christ, and I know that God wouldn’t give me these talents and place this desire in me to perform if it was going to be a burden for me to use them. So I trust that he’s going to also give me the resources and the time to go and spend time with my family and do all the other things I want to do.” When she is on the road she makes every effort to stay grounded and faithful by reading her bible and connecting with friends and family that are closest to her.
When asked about what to expect from the upcoming show, Jackson boasts, “The set is very imaginative. They put their own twist on it and really show their creativity. And the storyline will hit you in your heart pocket. It’s such a much bigger story than just me. And I’m looking forward to being onstage with the entire cast. They’re a talented group of people.”
For more information, visit www.ctcharlotte.org.