A Passion for Socially Conscious Theater Draws Visionary Awards Honoree Jacqueline Thompson to the Stage
It took Jacqueline Thompson a while to come around to considering the theater as a full-time proposition.
“People think actors are all extroverted and the life of the party, but that’s not my personality,” Thompson says. “I’m an introvert—I can turn on that other side, but being able to find my voice on and off the stage has been something that has been a slow process to come into.”
Thompson took theater classes and performed in shows throughout high school and during her time as an undergrad at Clark Atlanta University, but she still viewed acting as more of a hobby. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in communication, she returned to St. Louis and taught elementary school. But the theater continued to beckon.
Finally, “I got to a point where my passion was greater than my fear,” Thompson says. So she took the plunge and headed to the University of Louisville to study acting. “It was a chance for me to restart [theater],” she says.
She graduated with an MFA in acting and a graduate certificate in African-American theater, then returned to St. Louis in 2012 to begin her career in earnest, taking a visiting professorship at the University of Missouri, St. Louis (she continues to teach acting and directing there) and exploring the local theater scene.
“It’s been great to have UMSL as a home base and be able to explore the professional opportunities in the city,” she says. “I’ve evolved from that quiet little girl to do this now and be recognized for it. It’s pretty humbling.” In addition to her Visionary Award, Thompson was awarded a St. Louis Theater Circle Outstanding Award for Actress in a Drama in 2018 for her portrayal of Esther in the New Jewish Theater production of Lynn Nottage’s work “Intimate Apparel.”
Thompson has done her share of commercial work, including performing in a public service announcement on the dangers of prescription drugs for National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse that aired during the Super Bowl in 2017, but live theater continues to be her preferred discipline, specifically works with a social conscience.
“My passion is to do socially relevant work. A lot of my works, especially being in St. Louis, deal with racial equity and underrepresented stories,” Thompson says. “I’m always looking for that story that I haven’t seen onstage before, that voice you don’t hear from.”
Be it a drama, comedy or even a musical, the work must have a message that works to transform the audience in some way when they leave the theater for her to invest herself in it, Thompson says. A perfect example she says is “District Merchants,” written by Aaron Posner, which Thompson recently directed at New Jewish Theater. The play is a spin on Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice” and deals with myriad issues in the black and Jewish communities.
“It had so many levels of race and class and how we view oppression, how far we’ve come, and how so much hasn’t changed,” Thompson says. “A lot of audience members left and said, ‘Yeah, I’m shook right now.’ Sometimes that’s what theater does—the actors do the work onstage that we don’t want to do in real life.”
As she’s evolved as an actor, Thompson has also become heavily invested in teaching the craft and spreading her love of theater to her students. “What inspires me is to help students come into their own artistry, embrace their own individuality and really nurture that aspect of the art,” she says. “Not how to get work, but how to create your own work,” adding that the work of telling the story needs to be the driver for those serious about acting, not notions of celebrity or fame. “It’s about planting that seed of responsibility of being an artist,” she says.
As her profile has increased, Thompson has garnered attention from outside the metro area. She has started branching out from the St. Louis area and is doing more national theater work, with a focus on honing her directing chops. Her next out-of-town gig will be directing Lynn Nottage’s “Crumbs from the Table of Joy” for freeFall Theater in Tampa, Florida, from March 23 to April 14, and she has several directing projects in the pipeline in other regions currently being negotiated.
”[Directing] is the highest form of using my voice in a creative space, ” she says. “There’s a further creative power in that, and I think it’s important to be in that seat and tell these stories.”
One of those stories Thompson says she’d love to direct is “Head of Passes” by Tarell Alvin McCraney, a work she first saw years back at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago. “It’s a beautiful piece that’s stayed with me for a long time,” she says.
But while she enjoys directing, Thompson has no plans to give up being in front of an audience anytime soon. Her career bucket list includes writing and performing a one-woman show at some point, and she wants to start working on “getting out of my shell” and doing some singing.
As she grows as an artist, Thompson remains rooted in the tenets of her craft and looks back as well as keeping an eye toward the future. The words of one of her former teachers and mentors, the late Carol Mitchell-Leon, continue to inspire her. “Before every performance, we had to say ‘Power, performance, projection, purpose,’” Thompson says. “Those four tenets are behind what we do, and those four words I use to this day with students before shows.”
This is the third of a six-part series featuring the 2019 Visionary Awards for Women in the Arts honorees. The awards ceremony is April 22 at 6 p.m. in Grand Center’s Sun Theater. Tickets cost $50 and can be purchased online here.
Images courtesy of Diane Anderson.