Entertainment » Theatre

Amy Jo Jackson Talks 'Fun Home,' Upcoming Solo Show

Thursday Nov 8, 2018

In the SpeakEasy Stage Company's acclaimed production of "Fun Home," Amy Jo Jackson plays Alison Bechdel, the artist and writer whose complicated relationship with her father unfolds in an unusual manner. Jackson plays the adult Bechdel, who flashes back to her childhood and young adulthood growing up in a funeral home that her father owns. As she does, two additional actresses — Marissa Simeqi and Ellie Van Amerongen — step forth to play Alison: Simeqi as a young girl and Amerongen as a teenager heading to college.

Jackson as the 43-year old Bechdel has the unenviable task of being the static center around which her memories (and younger selves) swirl. Yet the sure-voiced actress gives the production its gravity as she recalls how her own coming out came just months before her closeted father killed himself.

As Don Aucoin wrote in the Boston Globe, "Amy Jo Jackson is superb as middle-aged Alison, haunted by unanswered questions as she restlessly roams through the scenes of her tumultuous youth while constantly drawing on her sketch pad. Alison is trying to fill in the picture and figure out how much like her father she is now — and how much that has to do with why, at 43, she feels 'stuck . . . unable to find my way through.' Jackson shatteringly conveys the ache of a woman seeking a connection that may never be achieved."

Previously Jackson appeared in the SpeakEasy productions of "Nine" and "Bloody, Bloody, Andrew Jackson." She has worked as a dialect coach on various companies of "Kinky Boots" and has performed at some of New York City's leading cabaret venues, including a recent tribute to Annie Lennox at Feinstein's/54 Below this past September.

On Monday, November 12 Jackson makes her Boston cabaret debut at Club Café. (For more information, visit the Club Café website.) EDGE spoke to Jackson about her solo show and her work on "Fun Home," which continues at the SpeakEasy through November 24. (For more information, visit the SpeakEasy Stage Company's website)

Making connections

EDGE: Congratulations on the success of "Fun Home" and welcome back to Boston. How does it feel to be back?

Amy Jo Jackson: I love it! I'm always so delighted to come work in Boston, especially in the fall. I've been lucky enough to work a lot in New England over the years, but NOTHING beats Boston in October/November. Plus, the audiences here are so smart, so savvy, and so generous, that it's always a joy to perform in this town.

EDGE: For those who don't know "Fun Home," tell us a little bit about the show.

Amy Jo Jackson: It's the story of Alison Bechdel, who is trying to write a memoir about her coming out, the death of her father, and how those two things may be connected and may be completely unconnected. That sounds dark, which I suppose it is, but the show is warm and funny and I think ultimately incredibly uplifting. And it has some FANTASTIC songs, though sometimes it feels more like a play with really incredible music than a musical.

EDGE: You are one of three actresses who plays Alison Bechdel in the show. Explain how that works.

Amy Jo Jackson: I play Alison as she is attempting to craft the graphic novel about her dad. The whole show takes place in my memories, in my head, really. I conjure up these younger versions of myself (referred to in the script as "Small Alison" and "Medium Alison") and watch them interact with my parents, my brothers, my college girlfriend, etc., and try to make sense of my life and my relationship with my father by looking at these various memories. The story isn't told in a linear way - it jumps around in time a lot - so it feels true in the way we actually remember things.

A groundbreaking musical

b>EDGE: Did you research the real Alison Bechdel to play her in the show?

Amy Jo Jackson: Oh, yeah. I read both her books multiple times, read the collection of her lesbian cartoon strips, watched and read a ton of interviews with her, went to a retrospective of her work at an art museum in New Jersey, and did a lot of reading of books that she'd mentioned or drawn in her graphic novels. I felt a responsibility in playing a real person, not to imitate her, which I didn't think was essential to the storytelling, but to understand her history and her state of mind when writing "Fun Home." I had no idea how I was going to play this role, so I just started with what was on the page and let all of that accumulate until it started to make sense to me.

EDGE: What attracted you to this project?

Amy Jo Jackson: It's beautifully written, and it's an important show. It was groundbreaking within the musical theatre world as well as significant for many people as audience members. Actors are freelance artists. Most of us are thrilled to be working on just about anything, but when the opportunity comes up to do something that TRULY feels important, that you know will resonate deeply with many people for whom you perform it, you GRAB IT. Also, I love SpeakEasy, I love Boston, and I was very excited by the prospect of playing a distinctly non-flashy role in a show I loved so much when I saw it on Broadway.

EDGE: Why do you think this show and this production has been so wildly popular?

Amy Jo Jackson: It's a gorgeously written piece based on a magnificent book, and it centers a gay woman's experiences at the heart of the story. That's unheard of in the musical theatre canon. I think a lot of folks see themselves on stage in this piece, maybe for the first time, and that's tremendously powerful, and also necessary for theatregoers to see queer women on stage who aren't jokes or stereotypes.

As for our production, I'm thrilled people are enjoying it. We had a beautiful time creating it. Really, we just kept going back to the script and trying to unlock it and serve the story, and it's resulted in a production of which I'm deeply proud.

Curating her show

EDGE: Next Monday, Nov. 12 - on your off-day from "Fun Home" - you will be performing a solo concert at Club Cafe. Tell us a little bit about the show.

Amy Jo Jackson: It's my Boston cabaret debut, and I am so excited about it! I like to think of my shows as parties, as sort of magical happenings. I'm your Auntie Mame, and tonight you're coming over and we're having a marvelous soiree that just happens to be a musical act! I like everyone to leave feeling inspired and excited and delighted to be alive by the end of the evening.

EDGE: What types of songs make up your playlist?

Amy Jo Jackson: The playlist is eclectic, darling!! It's a lot of musical theatre, some contemporary radio artists, some jazz... a lot of music you'll know and probably a fair amount you won't. In a bigger venue with a different feel, I might do more rock, but we're keeping this show acoustic and going with the vibe of the space, so we're leaning towards a bit more musical theatre than I've done in one show in awhile. Should be a grand time!

EDGE: Who are your musical influences?

Amy Jo Jackson: Freddie Mercury, Liza Minnelli, Barbra Streisand, Ella Fitzgerald, Janis Joplin, Stephen Sondheim, Peggy Lee, Annie Lennox, Rachael Price, Judy Garland, Stravinsky, Julie Andrews, Frank Sinatra, Rodgers & Hammerstein, P!nk, Bernadette Peters, Joan Baez, Melba Moore. So many individual singers and composers that I can't possibly begin to list them all!

EDGE: How do you go about crafting a show like this?

Amy Jo Jackson: I start with playlists and kind of surf out the feel till I like the flow from song to song. I do a LOT of list-making. I'll sing through a ton of stuff and see what sticks, and then see how it wants to fit together. I think of it as curating, like I'm crafting an exhibit at MoMA for people to walk through and experience.

Putting on a SHOW

EDGE: What do you think the necessary ingredients are for a successful cabaret concert?

Amy Jo Jackson: The kind of shows I most like to see are challenging, unexpected, dynamic, and singular. I want to feel that only that particular artist could have done that particular concert. I've seen a lot of very pleasant cabarets, and that's fine, but that's not what I'm interested in. I like to put on a SHOW. So a successful concert for me is about making everyone feel comfortable, like we're all hanging out in my living room having a marvelous time, and then we go on a JOURNEY across vocal styles and musical genres, and hopefully you also take an emotional journey with me. I love making people laugh, but I'm definitely not afraid to go to some complicated places.

EDGE: You have also produced and performed in a number of cabarets in New York City, including a recent tribute to Annie Lennox. Is producing such an event as satisfying for you as performing?

Amy Jo Jackson: Ha... nope. Not in the slightest. To begin with, I haven't ever produced anything without performing in it. Honestly, I hate producing. I think I'm a little too anxious as a human to ever find it pleasurable, but if it means that a concert exists where a concert did not exist before, and it's something nobody else was interested in doing, I find it satisfying. I DO really enjoy the programming aspect... I think I'm very good at putting together a fantastic evening of performers and entertainment, but the producing itself I find exhausting. A necessary evil with an extremely satisfying end result. I am over the moon with how Annie Lennox turned out, but I can't produce a major concert like that more than once or twice a year just for my health and sanity.

EDGE: What would you say are your career highlights thus far?

Amy Jo Jackson: This production of "Fun Home" is up there. Playing Eileen Brennan as Mrs. Peacock in the 30th Anniversary performances of "Clue" at Feinstein's/54 Below and The Players' Club were probably the best two nights I've ever had on a stage. An all-female identifying concert of "1776" starring Carolee Carmello and Mary Testa was thrilling. Working on "Kinky Boots" continues to be a joy.

EDGE: What else do you have on your schedule for this year?

Amy Jo Jackson: Decorating a big ol' Christmas tree, spending time with my family, and seeing a lot of shows.

Amy Jo Jackson performs on Monday, November 12, 7:30pm, at the Napoleon Room, Club Café, 209 Columbus Avenue, Boston, MA. For more information and to get tickets, visit the Club Café website.

"Fun Home" continues at the Roberts Studio Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, MA. For more information, visit the SpeakEasy Stage Company's website.

Watch Amy Jo Jackson perform "The Inevitable Sexist Medley:"


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