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Tell It on the Mountain

Jackson in Jungle Fever, 1991.  

Jackson and Richardson moved to a friend’s Greenwich Village place in 1976. Back then, the theater scene was vibrant and work was abundant. So were alcohol and drugs on the “no-man’s-land part of Times Square, with transvestite hookers and kung fu movie theaters,” he says. “When I was doing a show, I would go to Times Square at eleven in the morning, buy a quart of beer, a nickel-bag of weed, and see three movies for a dollar until it was time to go to the theater,” he recalls. (That’s also how he got hooked on Asian films. He now owns nearly 3,000.)

The party came to a crashing halt in 1990. After originating the role of Boy Willie in August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson, at the Yale Repertory Theatre, Jackson saw the part go to Charles S. Dutton for the Broadway run. Jackson was the embittered understudy. “It’s kind of what put me in rehab. I was sitting on the back steps every night, smoking crack and drinking,” he recalls. “I never took just one hit of nothing. I always did it till it was gone, and then I got some more.” Two weeks after getting clean, he played a crack addict in Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever, the role that made him a star. “It wasn’t until I let go of the idea of the brass ring that it showed up, and fortunately for me, it coincided with getting clean.” He pauses. After all these years, he still stops in to meetings. “As long as I am sober, I’ll be on top; if not, I’ll be on the bottom,” he says, slipping into the cadence of Jules Winn­field, his scripture-citing Pulp Fiction character. “Which,” he asks himself menacingly, “do you prefer?”

But back to King. Jackson remembers exactly where he was when he was killed. “It was campus movie night—John Goldfarb, Please Come Home!, probably one of the worst movies ever made,” Jackson recalls. “In the middle of the movie, this guy came in and said, ‘Dr. King is dead.’ We all filed out to the middle of the street, and people were gathering, and sure enough, someone threw a brick through a store window, and I was standing there thinking, This is not what we should be doing.” The following day, he flew to Memphis and marched in protest. The day after that, he put on a black suit and volunteered to be an usher at the funeral.

Jackson believes that if King were alive today, he’d be an advocate of immigrant and gay rights and would bemoan the death of American manufacturing and the middle class. “We’ve come a long way in our thinking,” Jackson states, “but also in our moral decay. I can’t imagine Dr. King watching the Real Housewivesor Jersey Shore.” Watching TV, Jackson sometimes feels cultural despair. “I was watching the BET Awards, and I guess they’re saying how awesome it is that all these young men have this wonderful underwear they can show to the world because everybody’s jeans are hanging off their ass.” He stops himself short: “That’s a sign of getting old,” Jackson says, shaking his head ruefully. “Asking, ‘Why do they dress like that?’ ”

Jackson hopes that, even if their jeans are baggy, when young people see The Mountaintop they will “find out that King is more than just a speech. He made the ultimate sacrifice. Guys like him, like Gandhi and Jesus, they stood up for something and got killed for it. But hopefully the movement carries on. Like that guy who killed those kids in Norway. Hopefully all the kids that survived that will go out and recruit some more kids and show these people that you can’t kill us—and this movement—off. It’s greater than us and greater than you. It’s what’s right.”

Sometimes, however, Jackson believes that you have to do something that might seem wrong to show people what’s right. Next year, he will reunite with Quentin Tarantino for Django Unchained, a mash-up of Western and slave drama. “I play Stephen, the quintessential faithful house nigger,” he says, laughing. “I will go from being the most revered black man in America to being the most hated cinematic Negro in the history of film.” Ain’t that a motherfucker?

The Mountaintop
Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre.
Previews begin Sept. 22. Opens Oct. 13.