A Visit with Richie Jackson
"Sometimes it takes just ONE."
Richie Jackson is ONE who makes a difference. His careful nurturing of the collective human spirit and, what I see as a determination to fold the world into his loving embrace, makes me want to up my game. He appears very comfortable with who he is and honest about how he got there. Richie leaves me wondering what more I can do, both privately and publicly, to be a better role model, stand up for others, and be unapologetically me.
It is no surprise that his response, when asked which book he wanted to read during his Broadway Books First Class visit, was One by Kathryn Otoshi. It is a book that literally shouts, "Everyone COUNTS!" That is the message Richie brought with him on a crisp February morning when he visited with our deaf, hard of hearing, and hearing students in preschool and second grade.
Richie and I go way back - over 30 years! We met when we were both students at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. I remember him as a blonde, floppy-haired, young man full of energy and movement with a great, big, welcoming smile. He seemed to know everyone, was universally liked, and could answer all of my questions about school, the city, and Broadway. I often felt like a small fish in a big pond at NYU, but Richie had - and still has - a way of making those around him feel valued. He takes you in, he listens, and he shows his heart. He was a very good fellow for me to know.
Since those early years he's continued his work in the theater. In fact, Richie was nominated for a Tony Award this year for producing the Broadway revival of Harvey Fierstein's TORCH SONG, which starred another Broadway Books First Class guest artist, Michael Urie. Richie's mom took him to see the original production in the early 80s and it left an indelible imprint on him. It's amazing to think that he brought it back to the same Broadway house over 30 years later.
I wanted Richie to share time with the students and was so happy when he accepted my invitation to be a guest artist. After introductions, which included Richie sharing photographs of himself at Age 4 and Age 7, we dove, quite naturally, into a discussion about fear and expectation. There are things children worry about. Things that have to do with growing up and getting older. Things that cannot be controlled. But, Richie told them, when/if they do happen you realize it wasn't really something to worry about in the first place. I think we've all experienced this. As FDR said in his First Inaugural Address, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself". It's better to place our energies into something more productive, if we can.
It was a perfect introduction to the reading because ONE tells the story of Blue. And Blue has some worries. Richie began...
"Blue was a quiet color. He enjoyed looking up at the sky, floating on the waves, and on days he felt daring - splashing in rain puddles"
The problem is, there's a bully in this story. I don't want to give it all away but issues are cleverly resolved and we learn a lesson about fear, anger, and acceptance. A lesson that ends with these words, "Sometimes it just takes One". It invites children to be that one - to step up, conquer fear, and move forward.
After the reading, the children asked Richie a few questions about being a producer. In addition to Broadway, Richie produced the movie Shortbus and the television series Nurse Jackie. He explained the role of a producer to us. A producer chooses what play or show to do, hires actors, raises money, and figures out how to bring in an audience. He likened the working parts to the operation of a school. The principal is the producer, the teacher is the director, and the students are like the actors. In both situations everyone works together towards a common goal. As the light bulb of understanding went on, a second grader suggested we make the school into a Broadway show.
Richie shared a bit of his story concerning how he became a producer. I love when our guest artists break down the mystery and let the children see the journey before the arrival - the fact that it is a process of amassing understanding and becoming educated in a field. That the hard work unfolds on a daily basis, while keeping your eye on your goals and dreams. Richie started out answering phones for a production company representing Cats and Starlight Express. Over time he created opportunities for himself and became a success because he laid a firm foundation.
As we were about to move into a bit of gift giving one student raised her hand. She had a question she really wanted to ask because it surrounds an issue she is grappling with in her family. She asked Richie, "How did you become gay?" Now, she knew a little bit about Richie's personal life because we talked about the fact that he has a husband and two children. Richie responded to her saying, "I knew I was gay from as young as I could remember. I knew in my heart that I was gay and I was so happy and it made me feel so special. I never thought I was anything else." She took it in and thoughtfully replied, "So, you were being yourself." Yes, indeed!
With that we gave Richie a few presents - a copy of ONE signed by all of the children and a Broadway Books First Class t-shirt. And, in turn, he signed copies of the book for each child. A wave of acceptance and love washed over us all that morning. As one girl wrote in her thank you note...
"Thank you for reading the book. It showed me a great life lesson."
Broadway Books First Class