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Elaine Jackson

(b. 1943)


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(b. 1943), playwright and educator.

Elaine Jackson emerged as a playwright in the 1970s, a socially and politically dynamic moment in the nation's history and a renascence decade for black theater. Beginning with her early play Toe Jam (1971) and continuing through her later plays of the 1970s and 1980s, Jackson presents a sometimes dark but inevitably celebratory vision of women in the process of confronting their lives and reenvisioning them. She, along with other black female dramatists of the period, working within the unique cultural climate created by the Black Power movement and the women's movement, helped to forge a vitally important theatrical space in which the lives of women of color found not only a stage presence but an authentic voice.

Born in Detroit to Essie and Charlie Jackson, the playwright began her theatrical career as an actress. After attending Wayne State University, where she majored in speech and education, Jackson moved to California to pursue her acting career. She performed in more than forty plays in Michigan, California, and New York (Off-Broadway).

In 1972, while Jackson was still working as an actress on the West Coast, two of her former theater colleagues from Detroit, Woodie King, Jr., and Ron Milner, published Toe Jam in the Black Drama Anthology, a seminal collection of works by twenty-two black dramatists, including Langston Hughes and Amiri Baraka. Jackson followed with Cockfight (1976), Paper Dolls (1979), and Birth Rites (1987). Her work has met with both public applause and critical recognition. She was the recipient of the Rockefeller Award for Playwriting for 1978–1979 and the Langston Hughes Playwriting Award in 1979. In 1983, she received a National Endowment for the Arts Award for playwriting. An educator since the late 1970s, Jackson served as playwright in residence at Lake Forest College in 1990 and at her alma mater, Wayne State University, in 1991. She lives with her husband, William Sparrow, and son, Dylan, in New York, where she teaches high school theater and playwriting. Currently collaborating with composer-lyricist Martin Weich on a musical version of her play Birth Rites, she is also working on a new play entitled Puberty Rites.

Jackson started writing plays as a means of creating acting roles for herself but eventually turned to writing as her primary means of expression. Often her female characters undergo a similar shift in artistic endeavor. Toe Jam and Paper Dolls both present female protagonists who, acutely aware of themselves as actors in self-negating, socially scripted dramas, become writers in an attempt to create new roles and new life stories for themselves. In Jackson's two other works, the female characters contemplate life's critical turning points; in Cockfight, a couple faces the dissolution of their marriage, while in Birth Rites several expectant mothers anxiously await the births of their babies. Whether dealing with endings and beginnings or redefining the spaces in between, Jackson's work further opened the stage door for black playwrights and helped to set a standard in mainstream theater for richly textured portrayals of black characters and their stories.

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Subjects: Literature.


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