Interview with Bayview Hunters Point native Rodney Earl Jackson Jr., who plays David Ruffin and Jermaine Jackson
by The People’s Minister of Information JR Valrey
“Motown the Musical” is the true story of Motown founder Berry Gordy’s journey from featherweight boxer to the heavyweight music mogul who launched the careers of Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Smokey Robinson and many more. Motown shattered barriers, shaped our lives and made us all move to the same beat. Now, the Bay Area can experience it live on stage in the record-breaking smash hit “Motown the Musical.”
Today we’re going to be talking with Rodney Earl Jackson Jr., who is playing the part of David Ruffin. “Motown the Musical” will be at the Orpheum Theater, 1192 Market St. at Eighth in San Francisco, from Aug. 19 through Sept. 28. For tickets, call (888) 746-1799 or visit https://www.shnsf.com/online/motown.
M.O.I. JR: Though many of us don’t know anything yet about the Motown musical, most Black people know about Motown. It’s so much of a part of the Black musical experience. Tell us a little bit about “Motown the Musical,” what it’s about. You play David Ruffin in it; who are some of the other characters that are involved?
Rodney Jackson: “Motown the Musical” is a huge theatrical experience that encompasses 55-70 favorite Motown songs from “Dancing in the Streets” to “My Girl,” “My Guy,” Jackson Five songs, lots of Temptation songs, such as “Ball of Confusion,” and it incorporates Smokey Robinson, Berry Gordy, Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye and the huge story about how Motown came to be what it is today or what it was and how it impacted people in the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s and into the future.
If you think about it, everyone knows a Motown song. You start singing “My Girl” and everybody’s gonna know it whether you’re in Japan or if you’re in the middle of America or in San Francisco. Everyone’s gonna know where that song came from.
But I want them to know the history behind the history behind the Motown phenomenon, what Berry Gordy did. Berry Gordy created this label, this entity of music which was incredible for African-American people because not many of us had lots of power back then and the show goes back to the Civil Rights movement, it goes to JFK and Martin Luther King Jr. being assassinated and all the way up until the end of an era for Motown when Berry Gordy had to make a hard decision and sell the label so that it wouldn’t go under so that his music would stay alive and people would still be able to enjoy it.
“Motown the Musical” is the true story of Motown founder Berry Gordy’s journey from featherweight boxer to the heavyweight music mogul who launched the careers of Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Smokey Robinson and many more.
M.O.I. JR: For the younger listeners that are tuning in to this Block Report, they might know about Michael Jackson and maybe The Temptations or Smokey or Marvin Gaye in passing. What was the importance of Motown and what years was Motown on top of the world?
Rodney Jackson: I would say Motown was on top of the world right around when the Supremes first took off. You know they had “Baby Love,” “Stop in the Name of Love.” They had so many hits and, at the same time, Marvin Gaye right around the ‘70s had “Inner City Blues,” “Make Me Wanna Holler,” “What’s Going On,” “Mercy, Mercy Me,” all those important songs around the ‘70s I think which was when Motown really took off.
At the same time, that’s when Michael Jackson and the Jackson Five first came about. They auditioned in Detroit and then Berry Gordy up and moved the whole Motown label to LA. I know many people saw the Jackson Five movie on HBO. It’s one of those long-running movies that they show on HBO. It’s like five or six hours long. But that shows a good depiction of what happened in the era when people, especially young people, I think most young people would recognize who the Jackson Five were and who Diana Ross was.
M.O.I. JR: Even though we’re talking about Motown and we’re talking about people who were a cultural phenomenon, you intertwined it with a very political aspect of American history. You talked about the Civil Rights Movement, you talked about the assassination of JFK and around that time Malcolm X and the Panthers. How did Motown impact the politics that were going on in the streets and how did the streets and the politics that were going on impact Motown?
Rodney Jackson: That’s actually a good question, especially because Motown was born in Detroit. When JFK died, we hadn’t seen when Marvin Gaye sang “What’s Going On” and it gets crazy. And I think the people of Motown, the artists, that era, especially after Americans really had to come together in a time of desperation – we’d lost all our heroes, we’d lost Dr. King, we thought there was no more hope – but this music helped to really bring everyone together because it became a political tool for the people of that era to express their feelings.
This music helped to really bring everyone together because it became a political tool for the people of that era to express their feelings.
M.O.I. JR: When you play David Ruffin in the Motown musical – me and you were talking a little bit off air and I’m in my mid-30s – from what I know about David Ruffin he was probably one of the first bad boy singers, one of the first gangsta singers or what not. He had a reputation for being maniacal, he had a reputation for being self-centered, but he also had a reputation for being very talented.
Did you see David Ruffin from a different generational lens? But you also know the ins and outs of David Ruffin probably from your own study but also from you playing the part of David Ruffin in the play. I mean, what do you think about my analysis of David Ruffin and what is your analysis of David Ruffin?
Rodney Jackson: I’m 23. I was born in 1990, so I do have a different point of view, but I think he was a very misunderstood human being. He felt in his heart that he was a superstar but he was connected to a group. I think in his life he wanted to be like Diana Ross – or a male version of her – how she branched out from the Supremes to become her own entity.
He wanted to branch out, also but it backfired on him. His brothers in the group, Eddy and Otis and all the other men in The Temptations, ended up kicking him out the group and I think he fell into little a bit of depression and started using substances that weren’t helping him in his life.
M.O.I. JR: So what part does David Ruffin play in “Motown the Musical”? Do they talk about his life? Do they talk about the breakup with The Temptations?
Rodney Jackson: No, they don’t. It’s interesting though because “Motown 25” was like a huge concert-like revival for all the Motown artists to come together, and actually David Ruffin isn’t there. The other Temptation who took over for him – Eddie Kendricks, who became the lead singer – he sings the “Battle of the Stars” and “Ball of Confusion.” And David Ruffin, he was in the beginning and he sang “My Girl” and they were singing that overseas like Paris and Europe and that was back in the late ‘60s or early ‘70s. But we don’t mention it in the show. We don’t go into detail about why.
M.O.I. JR: What creates tension in the show? I mean when you look at Motown you look at singing and dancing. I mean there was a little ruffled feathers behind the scene, but what creates tension? I mean when we think of Motown we just think of great music.
Rodney Jackson: Every single theatrical experience, whether it’s a play or musical or film or television, has a love story, an important love story because we can all relate to that. Everyone wants to be loved and everyone wants to see out of their lives some other kind of romantic relationship thrown in front of them.
And in this show, in “Motown the Musical,” that relationship is between Diana Ross and Berry Gordy. They had a very wonderful relationship when they were first starting out, when she was just out of high school and he was starting the company back when he was in his late ‘20s and she became like his muse.
Throughout the show – I don’t want to give too much away, but most people know the history about what’s going on – or maybe they don’t, maybe they have a skewed opinion about it because Berry Gordy told you about what’s going on. In the show you see how their relationship changed, how she became his superstar and how she was offered $20 million from a different label and ended up making the hard decision to leave Motown to have a better life with her family and kids, and I think that’s where the tension lies in the show.
And it surrounds people leaving Berry Gordy. Marvin Gaye leaves Berry Gordy. He goes to Columbia. Jackson Five, they go to CBS Records. Diana Ross gets a $20 million contract. She had to leave, and the tension lies in Gordy having to either sell the company or not sell the company.
Because it meant so much to so many people, he gets a lot of slack from the people around him who were there in the beginning, and he ends up doing it because the music is alive in all of us. It’s not really a negative thing, but it’s an important thing for our history.
M.O.I. JR: Last thing on Motown’s history: Do Berry Gordy and Motown own the masters from the Motown classics or who owns that?
Rodney Jackson: I think most artists – I’m too quick to answer that question. I don’t even know. I think he definitely does, because in the musical there are over 65 songs and a lot of artists are sadly deceased, so I think he definitely does hold the rights of the music that he had his hands in, which is most of the music.
M.O.I. JR: Who wrote “Motown the Musical”?
Rodney Jackson: It’s based on his book, which is called “To Be Loved.” It’s a story about Motown and Gordy’s life. It’s his autobiography. He worked on it with other people, but he is the sole writer of the show.
M.O.I. JR: Who executive produced it and who directed it?
Rodney Jackson: The director is Charles Randolph Wright, who is an amazing African American director in New York City. He was an actor when he was younger. The producers are Doug Marsh, who is the head of Sony, and Jerry McCullen who produced “The Heights” and “The Chaperone” and many other really great musicals.
M.O.I. JR: Where has the play been so far?
Rodney Jackson: It’s performing on Broadway every single night in New York City, and we’re the first national tour. We started out in Chicago. We started rehearsing in March for a month and a half and we opened in May. So there’s just two companies now, one in New York City that’s performing every night and our company in Chicago which will be in San Francisco Aug. 15.
M.O.I. JR: Through Sept. 28. You definitely want to see “Motown the Musical.” It will be at the Orpheum Theater in San Francisco. Rodney, let’s talk a little bit about you. I know that you’re from San Francisco. How did you get involved in theater?
Rodney Jackson: Actually, that’s a fascinating story. I grew up in the Fillmore and the Bayview district. I went to a school that back in the ‘90s was called 21st Century Academy, which was right next to Thurgood Marshall and I met a man named Danny Duncan, who was from the San Francisco Arts Education Project, which was an organization for youth who are interested in the arts – singers, actors, dancers – and they have these scholarships especially for inner-city kids and for kids that need more financial aid.
I was one of those kids they picked. He showed me the movie “The Wiz,” which, funny enough, starred Diana Ross and Michael Jackson, and I fell in love with the theater. Later on when I was in elementary school I got a free ticket from my school to see the “Lion King” and that changed everything for me. From then on I wanted to be a part of the theater. And it’s funny enough that it was at the Orpheum Theater, where I’m going to finally be performing come August and September.
But for me theater is inspiring, it’s educational and it can change people’s lives. It can let them escape for a moment. It opens up their eyes. It lets them be free for a moment.
I wish more kids could see more theater, because if they understood the art inside of them, their passion would be able to run free instead of having to be stuck or bogged down with the things that they see that are available to them right now, which is why I started a theater company in San Francisco called the Bay Area Theater Company because I want to create theater.
I want to give people the opportunity to be actors, to be singers, to express their artistic traditions. One of the most important things in people’s lives is art, because it really allows people to express themselves freely without having a preconceived idea of how they should live their lives.
For me theater is inspiring, it’s educational and it can change people’s lives. It can let them escape for a moment. It opens up their eyes. It lets them be free for a moment.
M.O.I. JR: Does your theater company still perform in the Bay Area?
Rodney Jackson: We do. We really, really do. I just graduated college a year ago so we’re like a baby company called the Bay Area Theater Company. sf.co.com. We had a show at the African American Cultural Center last year in the Fillmore, and we’re working on things right now. But it’s a little more complicated when I’m in a show in Chicago or in New York. But I’m pretty ambitious.
M.O.I. JR: Well, right on, man. I’m definitely looking forward to seeing the young David Ruffin doing his thing in “Motown the Musical.” Tell us a little bit – without telling us too much. Are the Jacksons a big part of “Motown the Musical”?
Rodney Jackson: I also play Jermaine Jackson. I think they have a nice little medley in the second act. I feel like, especially my character, because I’m the third brother who had all the solos in the line and I have this scene with Berry Gordy about how my brothers are wanting the lead. But you know Jermaine married Berry Gordy’s daughter and he stayed. They didn’t want to go.
The younger brothers – they all ended up coming back and what not and then Michael left the group; everybody knows that. But they have a pretty nice part in the second act. We sing “ABC”; we sing “I’ll be There,” ‘cause you gotta realize a musical is like around two and a half hours, so we sing a whole lot of songs.
M.O.I. JR: Now let’s talk a little bit about Jermaine Jackson. From what I’ve seen in the press and what I’ve come to think of Jermaine Jackson, he seems like he’s always been a little jealous of Michael Jackson. Is that what you pick up from being a student of Motown as well as playing Jermaine Jackson in the musical?
Rodney Jackson: Well, I don’t think we get too much into those details because they were teenagers, 15, and little Michael’s 9, so at this point in the musical we are just trying to make it, you know. Our father is just trying to get us in the door so we can go have an audition and make it, so we’re all ecstatic, we are over the moon just to be in Berry Gordy’s office auditioning for this man.
And then he’s like, “I’m moving to L.A. and you guys are coming with me,” and we go crazy and he puts us up and we have this huge number that we do, so I don’t think the jealousy comes out. I think we’re just all happy to be there. And also Jermaine gets some solos, so he ain’t tripping.
M.O.I. JR: So you must be a singer too, man. They got you playing Jermaine Jackson and David Ruffin? So do you have any vocal training or are you just an actor who can sing?
Rodney Jackson: I sing a lot in the show. I trained at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I was a musical theater major there and I graduated last year and I’ve had some vocal training. I also trained with Shannon Day in San Francisco and Othello Jefferson for a little bit and I went to SOTA, the School of the Arts, even though I was a theater major under the direction of George Radar, but I always appreciated the voice training.
I didn’t think I was that great of a singer, but I was part of the Young People’s Team Musical Theater Company, where a lot of people were actors, dancers, singers, so they let us do everything, which really changed our perspective on the arts. I appreciate them for that.
M.O.I. JR: Right on, man. So how can people stay up with you and your theater company online and how can people get more information about “Motown the Musical” online?
Rodney Jackson: They can go to my company’s website, sfbatco.com, and it has a whole lot of information about me, my company and Motown because we’re coming to San Francisco so what better way to combine the resources of networking than to put them in all in one place. You can go to motownmusical.com for the New York company and click on Tour and see when it’s coming in San Francisco. Or you can go on my Twitter, which is twitter.com/Rodney E. Jackson Jr. and check me out. Or they can just Google Rodney Jackson. I bet it’ll pop up.
M.O.I. JR: That’s what’s up, man. I’m looking forward to hanging with you and I’m coming to check it out.
Rodney Jackson: I’m so happy to be home with my family.
M.O.I. JR: Well, we’re going to tell the Block Report and SF Bay View family to come hang out with you. Rodney Earl Jackson Jr. will be at the Orpheum Theater with “Motown the Musical” Aug. 19 through Sept. 28. We’ll see you there.
The People’s Minister of Information JR Valrey is associate editor of the Bay View, author of “Block Reportin’” and the newly released “Unfinished Business: Block Reportin’ 2” and filmmaker of “Operation Small Axe” and “Block Reportin’ 101,” available, along with many more interviews, at www.blockreportradio.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.