Claude Jackson Jr. will see his play premiere on a San Francisco stage
Gila River Indian Community Defense Services Office director and playwright Claude Jackson Jr. stands for a portrait on a stage at Wild Horse Pass Casino on Dec. 29, 2022, in Chandler, Ariz.
Megan Mendoza/The Republic
Claude Jackson Jr., a citizen of the Gila River Indian Community, is an attorney by day, the director of the tribe’s public defender’s office.
But by night he is a playwright. And in late January, one of his works, “Cashed Out,” will have its world premiere at the San Francisco Playhouse. It’s a story about addiction, a subject Jackson says he was compelled to write about.
Jackson has always enjoyed theater and film but wasn’t sure he would find a place in that world. The path to the premiere was long and filled with unexpected turns and Jackson says he made it with the help and encouragement of his younger brother, Roberto Jackson.
Set in Jackson’s Gila River tribal community, “Cashed Out” revolves around the character “Rocky,” to be played in San Francisco by Rainbow Dickerson, and Rocky’s family. Rocky is the daughter of a well-known basketmaker and if she wanted it, could make her own name in basketmaking. Instead, she goes another route and becomes an accountant, all while battling a gambling addiction.
“It’s a tragedy,” said Jackson, who said he was influenced by Arthur Miller and William Shakespeare. “It’s about a person who is addicted to gambling and how the family members are dealing with it. Now we don’t have that type of scourge, that our community members are addicted to gambling, but I did want to touch on addiction in some way.”
An online reading leads to more interest
The play had originally come from a shorter piece he wrote in 2019, which won the Von Marie Atchley Excellence in Playwriting Award for Native Voices at the Autry.
Native Voices at the Autry is devoted to developing and producing new works for the stage by Native American, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian and First Nations playwrights. It is a popular program of the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles, and it holds a short play contest annually, with a new theme each year. The year Jackson submitted “Cashed Out,” the theme was gaming.
After Jackson won, the theater troupe at the museum performed the play and it turned out that one of the audience members was from the San Francisco Playhouse. That person reached out to Jackson and asked if the theater could stage a zoom reading of the play with actors.
Brothers and collaborators, Claude (left) and Roberto Jackson pose for a portrait at Wild Horse Pass Casino on Dec. 29, 2022, at Chandler.
Megan Mendoza/The Republic
“This was during the pandemic and at the time a lot of playhouses were doing Zoom performances,” Jackson said. “They were trying to keep the theater scene afloat. They asked to do my play. The director at the time said it should be a long-form play.”
After the performance, Jackson sent an email thanking everyone and said in jest that he would be working on a longer form of the play. This caught the attention of Bill English, the co-founder of and artistic director of the San Francisco Playhouse, who immediately responded and said if Jackson was serious about doing a longer play of “Cashed Out,” the Playhouse would commission it.
“They liked my writing style,” Jackson said. He said it took a few drafts for them to get it to where they wanted.
Love of movies influences writing
Jackson has always loved movies. Growing up, he recalls taking his younger brother, Roberto Jackson, to the movies with him. Roberto, a writer, told Claude about the playwright competition, and both submitted original plays that they’d worked on individually.
The earlier years of going to movies also left an impression on Roberto, and both brothers have worked on movie projects together. One movie they wrote together is called “In Circles,” which Roberto directed in 2015.
“It won some awards,” Claude said. “It was featured in two well-known Native American film festivals. Even if it didn’t cost a lot of money to make, it took a long time because we had to do it on weekends, and it took over two years to film.”
As brothers, they are constantly bouncing ideas off of one another, and Claude said this kind of supportive and creative relationship is helpful when it comes to their artistic craft.
Claude Jackson Jr. holds the script to his play “Cashed Out” as he stands on a stage at Wild Horse Pass Casino for a portrait on Dec. 29, 2022, at Chandler. Jackson’s play is set in Arizona, where he holds a career in public defense in the Gila River Indian Community Tribal government.
Megan Mendoza/The Republic
Roberto has no hard feelings that his brother’s play had won and said it was a proud moment for him and the rest of Claude’s family. He said it’s hard to put into words how talented a writer his brother is and how his talent is reflected through his art.
“Watching him develop over the years and working with the Autry, it’s a great opportunity for me again to be exposed to the theater in that way,” Roberto said. “As brothers knowing what addiction meant to some of our relatives and even in our own lives, and to see it used as a way to comment on society, it’s powerful stuff.”
Theater for Indigenous actors, playwrights and directors isn’t anything new but it’s not as well known as the Indigenous movie and television scene, which has become increasingly popular in recent years. Claude said in a span of about seven years of playwriting, he has met Indigenous theater actors and playwrights like the well-known Larissa FastHorse, whose play, “The Thanksgiving Play,” is one of the top 10 most produced plays in America this season . Claude had actually worked in one of her plays.
“It’s something where I just fell into this circle, into this community,” Claude said. “I didn’t know how vast it was.”
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Creating opportunities for native artists
The director for “Cashed Out” is Tara Moses, a citizen of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma and an award-winning playwright. Moses has been doing theater since she was 8, as an actor in local productions. She attended the University of Tulsa as a musical theater performance major and, while there, she quickly learned how unwelcoming the theater was for Native people.
“I was seldom cast because there were not opportunities made for me,” Moses said. “I quickly transitioned into directing because as a director, I had the most power in the room to create opportunities for other Native artists.”
Moses described “Cashed Out” as a powerful play with a lot of heart. The root of the play, a woman’s gambling addiction, is the connection all of the characters have with each other, she said.
Brothers and collaborators, Claude (left) and Roberto Jackson pose for a portrait at Wild Horse Pass Casino on Dec. 29, 2022, at Chandler. Claude holds a copy of a play he wrote, which will premiere in January 2023 at the San Francisco Playhouse.
Megan Mendoza/The Republic
“For Native people, we intimately understand how addiction manifests in our communities, and Claude did not shy away from the heartbreaking realities of it,” Moses said. “In the play, multiple characters suffer from drug addiction, gambling addiction and alcoholism, and not all of the characters overcome them. What I love so much about his play, and why I think it’s so important that it’s happening, is that throughout all the challenges, the family continue to pass down tradition and find ways to remain grounded and connected to who they are as Native people.”
Moses also noted “Cashed Out” is the first Native play the San Francisco Playhouse has produced, allowing for the first time their audiences to experience Native theater.
“The play involves so much traditional storytelling with nonlinear timelines and the presence of spirits, and also showcases us in a contemporary setting,” she said. “Many audiences only ever (if they ever do) experience Native characters living in the distant past, so this opportunity to see a real, nuanced, and complex story about real Native people living in 2023 will impact San Francisco in extremely meaningful ways.”
Growing up, Moses said she didn’t know other Native artists existed in the theater until she was 21. She is thankful that Native youth are living in a time where there is so much work being created by Native artists both on stage and on screen .
“Claude’s powerful play is one of the many being written, produced, and shared, and every single day I am thankful that there are more and more opportunities for Natives to see ourselves onstage,” she said. “Theater didn’t begin with the Greeks like we’re taught. Theater began with us, Indigenous peoples, telling stories for thousands and thousands of years before Greece even existed, so every Native storyteller has a place in the theater if they so want it.”
‘The theater nerd I always wanted to be’
During his time at Arizona State University, where he attended undergrad and law school, Claude said he was given a final assignment in his Native American literature class and he decided to write his first play. He received a B for that play and now, more than 20 years later, one of his works, “Olivia,” is set to be performed at ASU’s Theater Lab next fall.
But it didn’t happen overnight for Claude, even though he enjoyed movies and wanted to be a performer. He was set to perform in his first play his senior year of high school, but before that could happen he was kicked out of school. When he began attending ASU, he said he had no idea that being in theater was even an option for him.
“I remember watching the improv group there,” Claude said. “I watched them every Friday, I remember I was going to sign up and audition, but I chickened out. I never took that chance.”
Hiccups in life, such as trying to kick his drug and alcohol habit, had interfered with him getting involved with theater and exploring his artistic talent to its full potential. It made it easy for him to talk himself out of even giving it a shot. When stopped using drugs, he got involved with theater and even took acting classes at the local community college.
“When I started to be in these plays I loved it,” Claude said. “I loved the process. I loved the rehearsal. I was the theater nerd that I always wanted to be.”
The San Francisco Playhouse is a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization and was established in 2003. It is the Bay Area’s premiere mid-sized theater company, staging six plays and musicals a year at its 199-seat mainstage venue on Post Street, as well as three world premieres per year at intimate stages in downtown San Francisco.
Claude is excited about the San Francisco premier, but he is hoping to bring “Cashed Out” to Arizona.
“Hopefully the play does well in San Francisco and someone will take a chance and bring the play to Arizona,” said Claude. “I’m hoping I can bring it to Arizona. It’s a great story and I want to show it off to not only my community, but to the other O’odham communities, and to other tribes.”
“Cashed Out” premieres Jan. 26 and will be performed until Feb. 25, 2023.
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Arlyssa Becenti covers Indigenous affairs for The Arizona Republic and azcentral. Send ideas and tips to email@example.com.
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