2014 True West Award: Aisha Jackson and Jim Hogan

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TRUE WEST AWARDS: 30 DAYS, 30 AWARDS

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How appropriate that Montego Glover performed in the Arvada Center’s Putting it Together in 2001, and nine years later was nominated for a Tony Award for her work on Broadway in the 2010 Best Musical, Memphis. Now comes word that University of Northern Colorado alumna Aisha Jackson, who just played Felicia in the first local production of Memphis at the Arvada Center, will make her Broadway debut next month in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. And if Jackson’s soaring work at the Arvada Center is any indication – (was that possibly Little Jackson playing Little Inez just three years ago in Hairspray?) – it won’t take New York nearly as long to discover that she, like Glover, has been touched by a higher power.

Jackson and Memphis co-star Jim Hogan each faced huge obstacles taking on this fact-based tale of the first white DJ (loosely based on Dewey Phillips) to put so-called “race” music on mainstream radio in 1950s Memphis. Jackson, a Georgia native, plays a young black singer with no chance of having her voice heard outside her Sunday church service. Until a naïve, white wannabe DJ wanders into her brother’s all-black club and promises to get her heard on the mainstream middle of the radio dial. Felicia is both vulnerable and ambitious, and she will pay the price for both in blood. She’s also an opportunist who understands that, coming from these acidic southern roots, stardom and freedom will only come at a profound cost. The price she is ultimately willing to pay does not make for typical Broadway fare. That Jackson somehow conveys all that swirling complexity without alienating audiences is her greatest achievement.

Hogan faces a different kind of acting challenge. I mean, the poor sot is cursed by the physical inability to believably embody the short, twitchy, strange-looking – and odd-sounding – man Huey is repeatedly described to be. Hogan, who played Georg in the national touring production of Spring Awakening that came through Denver and Beaver Creek a few years ago – is not that guy. Well, there are curses, and there are curses, I guess. Broadway musicals demand some suspension of disbelief. The most important thing is the chemistry Hogan shares with Jackson, and it is obvious.

But if there’s one thing that has really annoyed audiences in the preceding Broadway and touring productions of Memphis, it’s that the actor playing Huey was directed to stay true to the source character’s odd spoken cadence that seemed bent on intentionally estranging anyone listening. Arvada Center director Rod Lansberry gave Hogan no such directive. Sparing audiences that obstacle allowed them to connect more deeply with the price Huey pays at the end in a spiraling, self-induced downfall that seemed fueled by equal parts principle and self-destruction.

Memphis doesn’t offer a traditional happy ending, but the warm-blooded performances by Jackson and Hogan kept the audience from leaving cold. Jackson and Hogan treated us to a fully realized story of two perfectly, imperfectly matched lovers.

  2014 TRUE WEST AWARDS:
1: Norrell Moore
2. Kate Gleason
3. Amanda Berg Wilson and Jeremy Make
4. Ben Cowhick
5. Robert Michael Sanders
6. David Nehls
7. Adrian Egolf
8. Emma Messenger
9. Buntport’s Naughty Bits
10. Tim Howard
11. Gleason Bauer
12. Daniel Traylor
13. Aisha Jackson and Jim Hogan
14. Cast of ‘The Whipping Man’
15. Rick Yaconis
16. Michael R. Duran
17. Laura Norman
18. Jacquie Jo Billings
19. Megan Van De Hey
20. Jeremy Palmer
21. Henry Lowenstein   
22. Sam Gregory
23. Wendy Ishii
24. J. Michael Finley
25. Kristen Samu and Denver Actors Fund volunteers
26. Matthew D. Peters
27. Shannan Steele
28. Ludlow, 1914
29. Spring Awakening and Annapurna
30 Theatre Person of the Year Steve Wilson

ABOUT THE TRUE WEST AWARDS
The True West Awards, which began as the Denver Post Ovation Awards in 2001, are the longest-running continuously administered awards program in Colorado theater. This year, the awards have been re-conceived to simply recognize 30 award-worthy achievements in local theatre, without categories or nominations. A different honoree will be singled out each day for 30 days.

The True West Awards are administered by arts journalist John Moore, who was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since founded The Denver Actors Fund and taken a groundbreaking position as the DCPA’s Senior Arts Journalist.

*The DCPA Theatre Company is not considered for True West Awards, which are instead intended as the DCPA’s celebration of the local theatre community.

Moore’s daily coverage of the Colorado theatre community can be found at MyDenverCenter.Org

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