by Pamela Young, Published March 15, 2013
YPSILANTI - Detroiter Jawan Jackson has achieved a grand but elusive dream. The 2011 Eastern Michigan University graduate will show off his acting, dancing and singing skills in the highly anticipated Broadway show, "Motown: The Musical," which opens April 14 at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in New York.
The show documents the history of Motown records and its founder, Berry Gordy, and explores the lives of such Motown stars as Diana Ross, Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder.
Jackson's character is Melvin Franklin, the legendary bass singer for the Temptations. Under Gordy's tutelage, Franklin's voice, as well as the group's choreographed steps, distinct harmonies and flashy suits made the Temptations famous.
" I found the call for auditions by chance on a casting website," said Jackson, 25, who was teaching high school acting classes in Ypsilanti at the time. "I just thought I'd audition for a chorus member, not for a featured role. For my first audition, I sang, "Papa Was a Rolling Stone."
That audition led to a second, where he sang the bass line for the major hit "Ball of Confusion." The call to audition before the musical's director came two weeks later and was held at the original Motown recording studio in Detroit's New Center area.
"It was mind-blowing," Jackson said. "The producers were having a hard time finding a strong bass singer, which is why they were so excited when they heard me sing."
The Motown audition found him reading the script and adding dance moves, which he learned from watching Temptations videos. His cousin, Yvonne Bowie, also helped by critiquing his movements, She knew Franklin from their days at Detroit's Northwestern High School.
Jackson was offered the role as Franklin in December 2012; he moved to Harlem January 7 and started rehearsals January 14. The cast is currently rehearsing six days a week for eight hours a day. As opening day draws near, the cast will work 12-hour days.
"I'll never forget the day I met Berry Gordy at the commercial and television shoot a couple of days before rehearsal," said Jackson. "He said I sounded like Melvin Franklin when he heard me sing and perform. He told me that Franklin was very likeable and that I needed to have fun with the role."
Jackson finds it ironic that he is now singing on Broadway.
"I sang at church and used to be shy," he said. "I had a high tenor voice in the 7th grade. I was ashamed of my voice, so I stopped singing. When my voice dropped, I began taking voice lessons privately. Those lessons paid off."
It took a shark to help convince Jackson to consider acting as a career. He first majored in biology at Eastern Michigan, with the goal of becoming an animal trainer. During a yearlong Disney internship, Jackson would volunteer on his days off to work with animals.
"I was in the water with sharks, sting rays and dolphins who were injured," said Jackson. "I hated it, but some good came out of it. When I got back to Eastern, I thought about what I loved to do, which was acting."
In 2010, he took an improvisation class with Jessica, "Decky" Alexander, a professor in communications, media and theatre arts. She became a mentor.
"In his first class, my teaching assistant and I suggested that Jawan audition for "Bud, Not Buddy", his first EMU theatre experience," said Alexander. "Simultaneously he became a member of C2 (CloseUP Classroom), an ensemble of faculty, staff and students that create and use theatre to address issues surrounding teaching and learning."
"Bud, Not Buddy" was Jackson's first play and that, he says, was when he fell in love with acting.
Jackson further honed his skills at Bright Futures, which are programs designed to improve academic achievement and helps students transition to the next level of schooling.
Affiliated with Eastern's Institute for the Study of Children, Families and Communities, Bright Futures programs partner EMU with Wayne-Westland, Willow Run, Romulus and Ypsilanti school districts.
"Jawan was as a teaching artist in the Bright Futures after-school CrossTown Theatre Program where he worked with high school students, teaching drama/theatre at Willow Run High School," said Alexander.
"A classroom and class experience can lead to infinite possibilities, which they did for Jawan. As a student and performer, he is authentic and giving."
More information about Jawan Jackson and the play is available at the show's homepage