San Diego County’s first Black homesteader inspires a play
Hoover High senior Shakur Jackson writes, co-directs and stars in a play bringing the legend and life of freed slave Nathan Harrison to the stage on Feb. 22-23
When Shakur Jackson was in the third grade, he read an Octavia Spencer mystery: “Randi Rhodes: Ninja Detective.” From that moment, he was determined to become a writer.
He checked out award-winning library books — thrillers, whodunits, horror tales, action adventures — studied writing styles, then incorporated them into his own prose.
The result? Next week, Shakur, now 18, is orchestrating the world premiere of a play, “The Legend of Nathan Harrison,” that he wrote, co-directed, and produced. He also stars in the 75-minute production.
It brings to life Nathan Harrison, the first known Black homesteader in San Diego County. Harrison died in 1920 after spending his final years in a cabin he built half-way up Palomar Mountain.
For years, San Diego State professor Seth Mallios and his archaeology students scoured Harrison’s home site and assembled clues piecing together details of the life of the freed ex-slave from Kentucky. Their research and findings were summarized in Mallios’ book on Harrison: “Born a Slave, Died a Pioneer.”
Enter Shakur, an “athlete of the year” in basketball and a track standout at Hoover High where he is a senior. As a member of the Aaron Price Fellows program, he visited the San Diego History Center, where its exhibition on Harrison captivated him.
He persuaded Bill Lawrence, head of the museum, to unlock the gift shop so he could get a copy of the book.
About a year after the visit, Shakur casually announced one day that he had written a play about Harrison and planned to produce it.
“He translated the book and brought it to a new audience with a new perspective,” says Annie Lyles, executive director of the Aaron Price Fellows. The program guides a select group of diverse high school students on a three-year journey toward becoming responsible, engaged citizens.
The history got out of the museum and the dig came to life. Now there’s a new historical figure in San Diego for young people to think back on and interact with, explains Lyles.
“He is so quiet and humble, but he has found his calling,” she adds. “Shakur just wowed us with his writing. He has the intellectual curiosity to do deep thinking. He also is unwavering in his vision for himself as playwright, actor and director.”
By translating Harrison’s story for others and bringing him to life on stage, Shakur is giving Harrison a second life and greater legacy, and he’s giving a gift to San Diego history.
Each year, the Hoover High drama department puts on a play during Black History Month. Last year, Shakur was one of the actors in “Don’t Tell Me I Can’t Fly.” That inspired him to do more.
He pitched his idea of writing a play to Hoover performing arts teacher, Michael Heu, who told him: “If you write something good enough, we’ll stage it.”
As soon as he got the green light, Shakur found a quiet place to write between his last class and basketball practice. “I turned into a ghost for a year. I didn’t talk about the production with anyone,” he says.
The oldest of three children, he lives with his mom in the City Heights/Lake Murray area and brings the same dedication to the project that made him a successful athlete.
He taught himself how to write a play by viewing plays online and analyzing their formats. He attended a play on a field trip and studied how the actors related to the audience.
“Unlike a novel, where you can write what the character is thinking, in a play you have to be able to show it,” Shakur says. As he wrote, he envisioned the story taking place on stage.
Shakur lacked the resources to create an elaborate stage setting, so he placed Harrison in a wheelchair near the end of his life reminiscing about his experiences to his doctor, nurses and visitors.
He talks about many of the challenges in his journey from slave to pioneer; how his slave owner brought him to Northern California during the gold rush; his subsequent stints as a laborer, timber man, rancher, and more. And he talks about racism.
On Feb. 15, Shakur met Mallios for the first time. He presented the SDSU professor with a copy of his play but asked that, before reading it, Mallios attend one of the two performances at 6 p.m. Feb. 22 and 23 in Hoover High’s Performing Arts Complex at 4474 El Cajon Blvd. (Tickets are $5).
Mallios told me he is attending both shows. “I couldn’t stop smiling,” the researcher says. “I asked him to sign the script for me and he did.”
He told Shakur that his late father had a dream of seeing the Nathan Harrison project turned into a play. “He has made my father’s dream come true. ... I have never been more excited to see a play in my entire life.”
In hopes of filling the 500-seat theater, Price Fellows members are spreading the word in the community.
Shakur wants attendees to leave the theater feeling they could surmount any obstacle and achieve their dreams regardless of their background or circumstances. “I also want them coming out with more knowledge about San Diego and the first African-American homesteader.”
His next goal? To perform this play a few more times, perhaps in other high schools, then write another play, then another.
“I am passionate about telling stories that captivate people’s minds, about making people enjoy stories and letting them contemplate messages. I want to see if I can change the world through entertainment.”
10:44 a.m. Feb. 21, 2023: Shakur Jackson was one of the actors last year in the Hoover High play, “Don’t Tell Me I Can’t Fly.”
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