Samuel Jackson has come home.
"Home" is now playing at the Arena Stage's Kreeger Theater, and Washington-born Jackson is the star.
Although Jackson and his mother moved to Chattanooga, Tenn., when he was just a few months old, he has maintained his Washington connection through a favorite aunt, Francis Miller, and her daughter, Wanda Jones, whom he visits each year.
When Jackson and Jones were children, they often spent vacations together. Jones went to Chattanooga for the first part of the summer and Jackson and his mother brought her home and stayed for a visit.
"When we were young, we slept in the same room," Jones reminisced. "Most nights, Sam used to make up stories, and that's how I used to go to sleep." Because neither of the cousins had brothers or sisters they thought of each other more as siblings than as cousins.
Sam Jackson is still spinning tales, and Jones is still listening. She and her mother were at a recent performance of "Home" to cheer Jackson on as he delighted the audience with his portrayal of Cephus Miles, a farmer and virtuoso storyteller from Cross Roads, N.C.
The play spans 20 years, during which Cephus abandons farming and heads north, trying to pass himself off as a "Philadelphia smoothie." When he becomes an alcoholic and ends up on welfare, Cephus realizes where he belongs: home in Cross Roads.
Like Cephus, Sam Jackson left the South to pursue a dream "up North." Unlike Cephus, Jackson landed on his feet.
His career plans changed dramatically while he was at Morehouse College in Atlanta. He started as a biology major and planned to become an oceanographer. "I made a conscious decision that I wasn't going to be an oceanographer after two days of classes," he said. But he still didn't know what he was going to be.
When an instructor told Jackson he could get extra class credit by acting in "Three Penny Opera," he decided to try out. "Then I found out that there were 15 women running around in negligees, and I knew I was going to keep at it," he said mischievously. "Besides, it was the first thing I'd done in college that I felt really motivated to do. I didn't miss one rehearsal."
Jackson's interest in drama grew when he saw the Negro Ensemble Company perform at Spellman College. He was also encouraged to pursue an acting career by a fellow drama student, LaTanya Richardson, who became his wife. By his junior year in college, Jackson had made a decision: he changed his major to drama.
After college, Jackson stayed in Atlanta, acting in repertory and children's theater, as well as doing commercials. "I could get practically any role I wanted there, but I saw New York as the hotbed of theater," he said. So he and Richardson, who is understudy for one of the two women's roles in "Home," set out for New York.
They stayed with friends while trying to establish themselves and Jackson started off just fine: he got a minor acting role and a job as assistant stage manager with the Henry Street Settlement Theater. But then there was no work for six or seven months.
"I went into actor's crisis," he recalls. "I kept asking myself, 'Why am I not acting?' To make matters worse, LaTanya was working at the Public Theater and I was doing a security guard job."
Jackson decided he had to return to acting immediately to rebuild his confidence -- never mind that Broadway wasn't beckoning at the moment. Shortly after that, he began working at the Billie Holiday Theatre, a repertory theater in Brooklyn.
Jackson's career progressed steadily from there, with numerous television and stage roles, including two years at Joe Papp's Public Theater and major roles in "Boggie Woogie Landscapes" (the Ntozake Shange play that had a brief run at the Kennedy Center in 1980) and the Negro Ensemble Company's "A Soldier's Play," which won the Pulitzer Prize for drama last year. He also appeared in the movie "Ragtime," which featured another actor with close ties to Washington, Howard University graduate Debbie Allen.
Jackson believes an actor must have good training. "You can't just get up and open your mouth because you think you have talent," he said. "You have to know some basic technical things like what's stage left, what's stage right, how to stand back so that you're on the stage but aren't making people look at you when they should be focusing on somebody else."
He also believes that an actor must have self-confidence. "Friends will come up to me and tell me, 'Hey, man, you know such-and-such a play is opening?' I'll say, 'Uh huh, I'm in it.' They'll say, 'You are?! They're just casting it now.' I'll say, 'I know. I told you I'm in it.' Then I'll go to an audition."
As cousin Jones said, "When Sam makes up his mind to do something, that's it," which explains why none of his relatives tried to discourage Jackson when he chose acting as a career. Although the decision surprised his family, Jones thinks Jackson might have been preparing for his career unconsciously since childhood. "I feel like I've had private performances all along," she said.