YoungArts Stepping Outside the Box

Three Week Residency Addresses Gender in Contemporary Society

Cameron Basden

Jay Jackson Jewel Box.


Jay Jackson Jewel Box.

Jay Jackson was cool and confident as she sat for her interview, backed by the colorful stained glass windows of the Jewel Box on the YoungArts campus. Jackson, aka Laganja Estranja, has been a daunting presence on television’s RuPaul’s "Drag Race," a contender on “So You Think You Can Dance,” is a master of theater and dance performance, is a dazzling drag queen, and a video icon. It is clear to see why Jackson has been successful. She is a triple threat with the added bonus of being a savvy business person, an engaging presence, and a well spoken activist.

In the first day of a three-week residency, Jackson is taking on the role of director, creator and choreographer to activate the entire YoungArts campus with a new, multidisciplinary, immersive, dance, theater experience that will culminate in a September 28 performance.

As a YoungArts 2007 winner in Dance and U.S. Presidential Scholar in the Arts, it is not unusual for seasoned alumni such as Jackson to be brought back to Miami to create. On-going collaboration with creative YoungArts alumni is one of the strengths of the YoungArts program.

Jay Jackson.


Jay Jackson.

Laganja Estranja. Photo by Aaron Jay Young.


Laganja Estranja. Photo by Aaron Jay Young.

It is, however, a first for the YoungArts organization to be bringing back, not only a person who has crossed gender identities herself, but one who intends to create an evening for the audience that addresses a multitude of gender questions, concepts and curiosities.

YoungArts has taken the bold step into an arena to promote a dialogue about gender that is current, timely, necessary and, many times, an uncomfortable one.

Born as a male, Jackson prefers the pronoun “she.” She was brought up in Texas, a climate that was not an easy one to navigate as a young gay man.

“I was extremely blessed to have incredibly supportive parents who recognized at a young age that I was different, special, if you will.” Jackson said. “They really supported my love of art. For me, I had a hard time, but at 4:30 that hard time stopped.”

Growing up, she worked with all the arts, but starting high school at Booker T. Washington, she had to pick one art form. She chose dance. Booker T. is a school that places much prominence and focus on YoungArts, so Jackson started preparing to compete as a sophomore. Entering the competition as a senior, she won.

Jackson elaborated on the excitement and value that YoungArts has added to her life.

“What’s really cool about YoungArts is that they involve the alumni in many creative ways. One of the greatest ways is that we come back and we mentor the high school students while they’re here in Miami competing.”

There are also regional programs for mentorship in LA, NY, and Miami. Jackson has been both a mentor and performer. She has been integrated with YoungArts for years now through these mentorship programs.

“Even though we graduate there is still this pulling us back, pulling us back. So for me, this residency, it’s just such a gift.”

“As a gay male in Texas, I didn’t really have someone to look up to that was real. I had Jack from “Will and Grace.” Jackson continued. “There wasn’t really that drag culture that we have now. There wasn’t this queer culture in the mainstream that we’re seeing now. I feel this sense of responsibility to represent my community, but to also educate in a fun way, in a creative way.”

“I think our perspective on gender is shifting, more education is being put out. Gender may not be at the forefront of people’s minds, but when you’re confronted with it, you begin to really open up, get outside of yourself and realize, wow, we have to be more honest and open and accepting of one another’s differences. I find with curiosity, there are so many things that can happen.”

Jackson feels that she has amassed the “dream team” of gung-ho, creative, flexible,YoungArts alumni to be part of this creative journey. The group includes a visual artist, a writer, a singer, a composer and one person who “does it all.”

The performance will be a totally immersive experience where people will be “in” the art. They will be encouraged to use their mobile phones to Instagram, Snapchat and create hashtags.

Jackson said, “My idea is based around gender and trying to make a commentary about where we’re moving with gender and where I see us, hopefully, moving with gender. The inequality has been here for years and it’s time to finally squash that and to acknowledge that we’re actually more similar than we are different.”

Creating a work about a difficult topic has its challenges and opportunities.

“I definitely think most of the audience will be aware of the conversation that we’re having on gender. However, I expect there to also be people who have never seen me, seen my work and are coming to support YoungArts. And we’re also going to get some local Miami heat. YoungArts carries a lot of clout here in Miami!”

Along with the YoungArts campus presentation, on Thursday, September 20, PAMM will be the host for an event and performance that will be a much more fun display that includes a beautiful fan dance party, a version of Laganja’s dance school and ends with a colorful drag show incorporating local talent. Jackson is working with Pridelines, offering classes, andconnecting with the LGBT community through workshops.

“It’s important for me to involve youth in anything I do. As a child, I was so supported and I think that’s why I’m able to be comfortable in my own skin. So I’d like to give that back. It’s not just one thing, I’m not here to just make a dance piece. I’m really here to have a full residency, a full experience and to invite others to the final performance and have them get to experience a piece of what myself and all of the alumni are going to have. I’m really excited to be using the tools in my toolbox that I have and presenting gender in different ways for different venues.”

During the interview, Jackson kept returning to the thankfulness she has for the YoungArts organization, providing the opportunity to have a space, to be able to create, to have the encouragement and support to address topics that might be a little outside the box.

“It’s a gift, it’s such a gift. It’s not just one week of your life. Young Arts is a family, YoungArts is an organization that is here to help. I’m so glad that I’m here”

Thursday, Sep 20, 2018 6 to 10 p.m., Pérez Art Museum Miami, 1103 Biscayne Blvd., Miami, FL 33132
PAMM Third Thursdays: Poplife Social YoungArts Takeover ft. Laganja Estranja

Friday, Sep 28, 2018 7 to 10 p.m., National YoungArts Foundation, 2100 Biscayne Boulevard, Miami, FL 33137
Jay Jackson – Immersive Dance Theater
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