Recalling C. Bernard Jackson’s Gift

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; George C. Wolfe is producer of the New York Shakespeare Festival/Joseph Papp Public Theatre

The year was 1977. I was 23 years old and had been out of Pomona College just over a year. A postgraduate artist-in-residency had stalled my inevitable descent into poverty and post-academic disillusionment for about six months--but that was behind me now. And so, here I was, stuck doing temp work in a series of slick, ghastly offices up and down Wilshire Boulevard--living in an apartment so small you had to turn sideways and inhale to exit the bathroom--trapped inside the schism of what I had been trained to believe and feel about my art and the stark, desperate, seemingly hopeless reality of it all.

At one point, I was granted an audience with the writers of a sitcom. During the interview, I made some joke and the head writer laughingly remarked, “Oh, he’s quick. We’re going to have to tie one hand behind his back.”

Now, maybe it’s because I’m from the South, but such quaint little sayings, or others such as “Let me pick your brain,” usually send me running in the opposite direction. And run I did, right to the Inner City Cultural Center, right into the deeply political, deeply passionate--about art, about life, about the world--arms of C. Bernard Jackson, Inner City’s founder and visionary.


Jack was a playwright, lyricist, composer, translator, historian, educator, cultural force, arts advocate and intellectual. But, for me, he was a savior. He saved me and so many artists from disillusion and bitterness. He built an institution based on cultural diversity, non-traditional casting and community long before those notions became catch phrases for foundations.

He did this because, in his heart, he believed theater should be a lightning rod for change, a barometer of possibility for the rest of society.

Inner City, as the story goes, “rose from the ashes of the Watts riots.” Jack, along with his team, Josie Dotson and Elaine Kashiki, kept it going through the myriad shifting priorities of the funding community: “Negroes are in, fund them; now they’re not. Multiculturalism is in; now it’s not, unless it’s being done by institutions who’ve never done it before.”


What Joseph Papp was crafting on the East Coast, a theater teeming with life and vitality, capitalizing on the textual richness of a complex city, C. Bernard Jackson was doing on the West Coast.

During an early meeting with Jack, back in 1977, I gave him the first scene from a play I was working on and, I guess as some sort of homage to Abraham Lincoln, a synopsis of the rest of the play written on an envelope.

He called me the next day and said: “Here’s some money, go do it.” He didn’t mean go finish writing it. He meant go do it--cast it, direct it, design it, rehearse it. And so I did.


The name of the play was “Tribal Rites, or The Coming of the Great God-bird Nabuku to the Age of Horace Lee Lizer.” Though I’ve been involved in many projects since, this production was perhaps the most crucial to my evolution.

Because it was someone like Jack--a person with his convictions--saying yes to me, I believe it deeply influenced the kind of artist I’ve become.

The Inner City Cultural Center, C. Bernard Jackson and Josie Dotson parented me; not in the rules of behavior, but in that most intangible of ways--they nurtured my belief in the power of art to heal and my responsibility as an artist to the world I live in.

Every step of my career, every battle fought and every victory won, I can all trace back to some message, some idea, some reality I saw manifested in Jack or in the day-to-day reality that was Inner City. I think the measure of an artist is not so much in the work they accomplish or in the fame they achieve, but in what they give. By those standards, C. Bernard Jackson is nonpareil.

My friend, visual artist and filmmaker Camille Billops, told me Jack had a dream of having his own marching band.

The family of Inner City Cultural Center--the people who passed through its doors and have been transformed and saved by Jack and his vision--is so vast.


We are his band. His richly diverse, anarchistically outrageous marching band. And from this day forward, we will all go marching into our disparate fields--celebrating the life and brilliance of C. Bernard Jackson by the quality of our choices and the depth of our commitment to our beliefs.


Services for C. Bernard Jackson are scheduled at 11 a.m. today at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center Theater in Little Tokyo, with burial in Rose Hills Memorial Park in Whittier. Reception at 3 p.m. at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St.