In her first star turn, Janeta Jackson will take the stage at Children’s Theatre of Charlotte in the role of the “uncanny nanny,” Mary Poppins, as CTC opens its 70th season on Oct. 6.
Artistic director Adam Burke says Jackson has a wonderful voice and is a great actor, but she also has a great personality and tenacious work ethic. “This is an iconic role so it is important that the audience both love her and that the audience be swept up in her sassy and strong personality,” he said.
The role is “an opportunity for me to just shatter people’s expectations of this very familiar character,” says Jackson, who played the fairy godmother in CTC’s production of Ella’s Big Chance: a Jazz-Age Cinderella in 2015.
Jackson says she treated her audition as a performance. She researched the character and memorized the lines and music and just allowed the character to develop. “I wanted to embody who Mary Poppins was, but didn’t want to be a copycat, a replica. I wanted to show a bit of myself in the character.” And that bit of herself landed Jackson the job.
“We had a lot of very talented women audition and many of them would have done a great job with the role,” said Burke. “However, we believe Janeta will bring something to the role that has never been seen before.”
In the professional world of theater, the casting of an African American in the role of Mary Poppins is unusual —if not unprecedented — based on an extensive search of the Internet.
The musical has been staged thousands of times around the world over the past 13 years — from Sweden to Dubai — and has been translated into 17 languages. The first production debuted in London in December 2004 — 40 years after the Disney movie introduced American audiences to the “practically perfect” nanny. A sequel to the movie is due out next year with British actress Emily Blunt in the lead role; Puerto Rican actor Lin-Manuel Miranda will play the Dick Van Dyke role.
CTC has a history of colorblind casting for roles where ethnic or racial identity is not essential to the characters. The organization practices casting that will best serve the show and best represent the community on stage, says Burke.
“Our audience, our community is very diverse, is very eclectic — culturally, socially, economically,” said Burke. “It’s really important that when children come to the Children’s Theater of Charlotte, they see that represented on stage and that (includes) the creative teams, the design teams, the artists, the directors as well as the actors.”
For Jackson, the role is the thing. “My portrayal of Mary Poppins is going to be different but not just because of the color of my skin. I’ll be adding more flair, sass and flavor to the character but still keeping her very familiar.”
And while she is confident in her singing and acting, Jackson confides that she’s “terrified” of the tap number “Step in Time.” She doesn’t have much tap experience but says she’s worked on it a lot over the summer to prepare. “Whatever they throw at me, I’m gonna make sure I’m ready for it.”
“I never shy away from a challenge,” she says. “Any opportunity that I have to learn something new or to develop a different aspect of my craft, I am on it.”
Jackson says she is excited to work with CTC again. In addition to Ella’s Big Chance, she also appeared in CTC’s 2015 season-opener, Elephant and Piggie’s: We Are In a Play.
CTC is a great company to work for, Jackson said. “Whether you were ensemble or whether you were lead, they helped develop your character. They worked with you on every single aspect of each production.”
Jackson’s looking forward to returning to the stage in Charlotte. “Audiences were great when I worked there before,” she said.
Want to go?
When: Oct. 6-29, various times
Where: McColl Family Theatre
Tickets: Online or call 704-973-2828 (Monday through Friday, 12 p.m. to 5 p.m.)
About Janeta Jackson:
• Lives in Hialeah, FL
• Bachelor of Music in Voice Performance, Voice and Opera, 2009, Florida International University