A Broadway Performer Finds His Spot in Harlem

When Jawan M. Jackson learned he had landed an ensemble role in “Motown: The Musical” on Broadway in December 2012, he knew he wanted to live in Harlem. Mr. Jackson, a Detroit native, had stayed with a friend there when he came to the city for his callback audition. “It immediately felt comfortable,” he said. “It felt safe.”

But arriving from Michigan, with less than a month to find a place before rehearsals started, Mr. Jackson didn’t have a lot of time to lock down an apartment. And as he soon discovered, figuring out how to navigate the Manhattan rental market was not unlike trying out for his first Broadway show.

“I didn’t know I’d have to dance,” said Mr. Jackson, a bass who has no trouble hitting a low C on command, but showed up for his New York audition 40 pounds heavier than he is now and wearing “Timberlands, baggy pants and a button-up shirt — pure Detroit.”

“Everyone else had on leotards or took their shirts off, and it was like abs and chests. I was so out of shape,” he said, adding that they had to send him off to work alone with the assistant choreographer for an hour to see if he was capable of picking up the steps.

CreditChang W. Lee/The New York Times

$1,350 | Harlem

Occupation: Mr. Jackson, a singer and actor, plays Melvin Franklin, in “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations,” which opened on Broadway in March.
The small outdoor space off his living room: is one of the most unusual features of his third-floor brownstone apartment. “I like to sit out there in the mornings, chill and write,” he said.
His landlords are also unusual: “They’ve hardly raised the rent since I moved in,” Mr. Jackson said. “They just want good people in the building. And over the years, whenever I want anything fixed, it’s, like, right away.”
A strange coincidence: One of the other dogs in the three-unit brownstone is also named Harlem.
In every room: is a photo of his mother, who died in 2005. “My mother listened to the blues,” he said. “When I was a kid, I fell in love with a blues tape she had, and got into singing. My mother would showcase me to her friends, then I started singing in church.”
After a show: He’ll get a late-night dinner in Midtown, but he loves to cook and have holiday meals at his apartment. “I consider myself an old country man,” he said. “I like string beans, biscuits, turkey legs, yams, cornbread. I got it from my grandmother.”

His first Manhattan rental was a similarly uncomfortable experience. Mr. Jackson booked a long-term sublet on Airbnb, paying $1,200 a month for the extra bedroom in a freelance casting director’s Harlem garden apartment. It seemed fine at first, but about six months into his stay, Mr. Jackson’s roommate asked him to pay a month of rent in advance, claiming he was waiting on some checks.

“The first time, I obliged,” Mr. Jackson recalled. “I said, ‘O.K., I’ll just pay the entire rent. How much is it?’ He said, ‘$1,600.’ I was like, ‘What? You can’t pay $400?’”

The next time the roommate asked for a rent advance, Mr. Jackson turned him down. At that point, the roommate’s adult son had moved into the living room and was entertaining late-night guests and eating Mr. Jackson’s food in the refrigerator. Clearly, it was time to go.

Fortunately, one of Mr. Jackson’s castmates was looking for someone to take over the lease on his apartment, a one-bedroom on the top floor of a Harlem brownstone. The rent was $1,250 a month, little more than he had been paying for a single room.

“It was like my spot chose me,” said Mr. Jackson, who fell in love with almost every aspect of the apartment. It was spacious, with lots of closets, big rooms, high ceilings and a little outdoor area off the living room.

“I loved the brownstone feel,” he said, which reminded him of the houses he grew up in.


CreditChang W. Lee/The New York Times

He didn’t have enough furniture to fill a big one-bedroom apartment — or the money to buy it right away. The security deposit from his first New York rental had never been returned, and he had spent the previous six months paying out the remainder of his lease in Detroit. But as it turned out, that wasn’t a problem: The castmate needed a place to store his stuff for a few months.

In the six years that Mr. Jackson has lived there, the apartment has continued to suit his changing needs.

Shortly after moving in, he got a Shiba Inu puppy that he named Haarlem, in tribute to his favorite neighborhood (spelled with two A’s, in a nod to the area’s Dutch history). He also discovered that St. Nicholas Park Dog Run, one of the largest runs in the city, is within walking distance.

Haarlem is now 6 and “so chill sometimes I forget she’s in the house,” he said, but she still enjoys going to the dog run. She also likes “singing” along with him when he practices at home.

For a long time, most of the apartment’s closets sat empty, but they are now completely full. And the walls have been through several color transformations. When Mr. Jackson arrived, they were yellow and green — “real grandma-y,” he said. He threw a paint party, where friends helped repaint them in cream, with a blue accent wall in the living room. Recently, he painted the apartment again, this time in a light gray.

But perhaps most important for a singer and actor finding his footing in the city, the rent has remained reasonable — he now pays $1,350 — which allowed him to stay in the apartment, and in New York, after his first Broadway show ended.

“I sang background, did studio sessions. I was a call rep for Broadway.com,” Mr. Jackson said.

At one point, to help pay the rent, he took on a roommate who slept in the living room, an arrangement that might not have worked had the space been smaller.

After several years of cobbling together side gigs, Mr. Jackson landed another Broadway show: a leading role, playing Melvin Franklin, in “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations,” which opened in March.

“Broadway has been a dream since I was 12,” he said. “The first show I was in was ensemble, so I played, like, four characters. Now I get to be one person and enjoy the arc. It’s a real person, which is challenging, but I think I figured out who he was.”

He added: “I’m a lead on Broadway, which I never thought I could be.”


CreditChang W. Lee/The New York Times

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Published at Mon, 05 Aug 2019 21:51:06 +0000