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Musical ‘Jelly’s Last Jam’ is Four Years in the Making

The cast of Jelly's Last Jam rehearse
The cast of Jelly’s Last Jam rehearse. (Photo by Bobby Wu ’24)

Jasmine Hawkins ‘23 has been working to put on Jelly’s Last Jam since her first semester at Emerson. Come Friday, March 31, her hard work will come to fruition when the musical theater production, featuring a cast of color, will be performed at the Semel Theater.

An incident during her first year inspired her to put on the show. While walking around Emerson, Hawkins noticed an unhoused Black man dancing. At the time, Hawkins thought he looked so happy and free and that lifted her spirits, but seeing how other people looked at him in disgust was disheartening to her.

She snapped.

In one of her classes Hawkins, through tears, shared how she didn’t want to ever feel that way again.

“‘You guys are never going to make me feel this way again. Anything that I do is going to be in service to people who look like me and in honor of those who have come before me,’” Hawkins said she told her class. “‘And that’s why I’m going to do the show Jelly’s Last Jam here at Emerson.’ [The class] let me play a song from the show and we danced to it.”

Since that day, Hawkins has been dedicated to putting on the show.

Three women rehearse dancing and singing
Hannah Crouse, Kayla Rush ’23 and Sky Fortes ’25 rehearse. (Photo by Bobby Wu ’24)

Written by George C. Wolfe in 1991, Jelly’s Last Jam follows the story of jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton. The show begins as a recently deceased Jelly Roll is conjured by a mysterious being named “Chimney Man” to relive his life, including a painful moment he would rather ignore. The story shares the joy, celebration, and contributions Black people have given to art.

Hawkins is directing and executive producing the musical, and was introduced to Jelly’s Last Jam as a high school senior after discovering a video of cast members performing a song from the show at the 1992 Tony Awards.

The one-night-only show is officially sold out, but there is a wait list for tickets.

Hawkins encountered a number of obstacles in her effort to put on Jelly’s Last Jam, including COVID. During her junior year, Hawkins joined the Emerson Stage Season Selection Committee in hopes that, even if she were unable to put on the show, the Performing Arts Department could do it.

At the end of her junior year, Hawkins was awarded a student engagement and leadership award by interim president William Gilligan, who announced the award by saying, “…expect Jelly’s Last Jam next year.” Finally, during the fall semester of her senior year, everything started to fall into place.

Hawkins worked with music director McKennen Campbell ‘23 to co-produce the show. The two met their first year and shared a love for creating theatre and art, and a mutual drive to tell stories that centered people of color. They knew they wanted to collaborate.

“We both wanted to combine community building and activism with our deep passion for creating theatre,” Campbell said.

Campbell recognized similar difficulties in getting his creative project, The Trial of Errors, realized after a number of rejections. Campbell’s play explores themes of police brutality, microaggressions, and the way that Black people exist in creative spaces, was assistant-directed by Hawkins, and went on to win a 2021 EVVY Award for Outstanding Writing for Stage. 

Putting on an all-Black cast musical at Emerson was very important to Hawkins.

“As Viola Davis and others before her said, ‘representation matters,’” Hawkins said.

Hawkins says it’s one thing to have Black people in productions in which they typically are not cast, however, then you have a Black character who is being forced to adhere to a white archetype.

“On the other hand, when you do see Black stories, it’s only trauma-based stories,” Hawkins said. “You know what to expect when you see Black bodies in the theater—you know you’re going to talk about race and it’s going to be sad.”

Campbell warns that showcasing only those types of stories, or showcasing nothing at all, can be very harmful. But she believes this show is different because it’s a Black story with universal themes that everyone can relate to, that also explores themes like race, class, gender, and identity.

“It’s a joyous story with joyous dancing and beautiful music,” Hawkins said. “We go to dark places, but we don’t stay in those places. In fact, the show rejoices that we’re out of those places.”

Hawkins hopes that Jelly’s Last Jam will be a gateway for more than one type of Black story to be told at Emerson.

“We’re people, too, and we deserve to have nuanced stories, too, the same way other plays get to have fleshed-out, nuanced stories,” Hawkins said.

Cast of Jelly's Last Jam rehearse while looking at a mirror wall
The cast works on dance steps. (Photo by Bobby Wu ’24)

Hawkins and Campbell said working with an all-Black cast was amazing and refreshing.The question they are often asked is, ‘How will you find the people?’” ‘

“That really shouldn’t be a question because the people are here, you just have to reach out to them. You just have to create that space for them,” Campbell said.

Both Campbell and Hawkins felt like that space was needed. 

“For a long time, I felt like I didn’t have a space here; I felt like I didn’t have my cohort that I could really talk to and identify with, but I have that now, and they have that now. We have community now,” Hawkins said.

“It has allowed us to unapologetically express ourselves creatively to the fullest extent,” Campbell said.

Campbell hopes that this performance will show the Emerson community that performances like this are possible, and that it might become a blueprint for creatives of color producing future shows at Emerson.

“I hope that the impact of this production extends beyond people just watching the show. I want it to really open up some avenues for deep-rooted change at this institution,” Campbell said.

On Friday, the audience is encouraged to have fun and enjoy the moment.

“It’s a very lively show and it really thrives off of audience energy—if you give, we’ll give to you,” Hawkins said. “So please feel free to stand up, clap, scream, shout, and wave your handkerchiefs that we’re going to give you in the air!”

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