Life Imitating Art
How Jawan M. Jackson went from EMU to Broadway to The Temptations
Get ready for the improbable story of how Jawan M. Jackson (BA11) joined The Temptations, the chart-topping Motown group that churned out memorable hits like “My Girl” and “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” and has been a musical force since 1960.
Founding member Otis Williams, now 81, is still with the group, and when he went looking for a new bass singer in 2022, he looked to Broadway for inspiration.
He found Jawan, who had been doing a pseudo-apprenticeship for years.
Jawan had spent much of the previous decade playing Melvin Franklin, The Temptations’ original bass singer, in “Motown: The Musical” and “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations”—both on Broadway. With his deep, soulful voice and smooth dance moves, Jawan had been paying homage to Franklin for years—both on stage and as a young man growing up near Seven Mile and Greenfield in Detroit, where Motown music was the soundtrack of his life.
Now he’s touring the globe with The Temptations, and singing as Jawan, not Melvin.
Jawan returned to the Eastern campus for the first time in 11 years to share some of his memories as a budding student performer.
Just My Imagination
“Theater and arts and entertainment have always been part of my life,” Jawan says. “I’ve been singing since I was a little kid. It just never dawned on me that I could make a career out of it because I had always been doing it just for fun.”
Jawan recounted his circuitous career path during a recent visit to Eastern Michigan University’s Judy Sturgis Hill Building and the Legacy and Sponberg Theatres. He was back in Michigan for events at the Motown Museum and the Detroit Opera House and was able to squeeze in a short trip to Ypsilanti. It was his first time on campus since 2011.
“It’s crazy to be back here where it all started,” Jawan says, the memories washing over him.
His story is one of perseverance, experimentation, determination, and belief.
Smooth moves: Jawan, (red microphone,) has appeared in more than 40 performances as a Temptation since joining the group in 2022.
Jawan graduated from Ferndale High School and came to EMU with a wealth of interests. He liked to cook. He was strong in science and chose biochemistry as a major. And he had one career goal: he wanted to train dolphins at SeaWorld.
He left EMU to take a six-month internship with Walt Disney World in Florida, and that proved to be a turning point; he learned didn’t like working on the water. He stayed with Disney, though, taking a second internship and, despite being just 21 years old, landing a full-time job managing one of Disney’s largest resorts.
He had a steady paycheck but knew that he wasn’t in the right place. He needed to return to Michigan. “I had a burning desire to return home because my mother always wanted me to finish my degree,” he says. “She passed away in 2005. I thought ‘I have to honor that promise.’”
He returned to EMU confident in his interpersonal skills yet rudderless career-wise—until he took an improv class taught by Jessica “Decky” Alexander, a professor of drama/theatre education. And everything changed.
“I just fell in love with it,” he says.
Embraced by Alexander’s energy and encouragement, Jawan changed his major and made the theatre department his home. He jokes that he did pretty much anything that Alexander encouraged him to do, calling her the “flint” that sparked his fire. He performed with C2-Close-UP Classroom, an ensemble of faculty, staff and students that created and performed original content focused on teaching and student engagement, and worked on an applied theatre project focused on homeless youth. His only mainstage credit came in 2010 when he was cast in “Bud, Not Buddy.”
“Whatever Decky wanted me to do, I was like, ‘Okay. Cool,’” he says.
Alexander’s influence remained with him after he earned his bachelor’s degree. Jawan took a job with EMU’s Bright Futures, an after-school academic and social-emotional learning program for underserved youth that she helps lead. But that wasn’t all he was juggling. He was a youth minister in Detroit, did voice-over audio work on WGPR-FM, and created social media content for the station’s “The Car Man Show.” He was busy, but he still couldn’t imagine where his path would lead.
“I was just trying to work,” he says. “At that point, I didn't know where I wanted to go. My life was going in so many directions.”
“I’ve been singing since I was a little kid. It just never dawned on me that I could make a career out of it because I had always been doing it just for fun.”
Reunited: Jawan met with his former EMU drama/theatre education professor Jessica “Decky” Alexander during his campus visit last summer.
The Way You Do the Things You Do
There’s a sense of awe and wonder in the room as Jawan tells his EMU story. He’s visiting with Alexander, EMU President James Smith, and Dr. Connie Ruhl-Smith, and it’s easy to see the intangibles that got the attention of casting directors.
Jawan oozes charisma, with a megawatt smile that could power a marquee. He’s comfortably fashionable, wearing black slim-fit jeans, an abstract zebra print T-shirt, and a black durag. He’s seated in a small classroom chair in the same room where he took his first theatre class. His black Adidas Swift Run shoes tap the floor. Black and gold frames adorn his face, and his wide eyes are earnest and expressive. He has a presence—a trait Alexander noticed when they first met. And he is completely at ease.
“He enters a room, and people just gravitate toward him,” Alexander says. “And he has this thing. It’s not that he’s fearless—I don’t want to say that. He’s more like, ‘Okay, this is where the world is taking me. I know who I am and I’m going to go someplace.’”
Jawan’s “someplace” turned out to be Broadway, when, in 2012, he won an ensemble role in “Motown: The Musical,” which is based on the autobiography of Motown founder Berry Gordy. He was cast as bass singer Melvin Franklin, a founding member of The Temptations who was with the group from 1960 until his death in 1995. Jackson didn’t have an agent when he auditioned. Or a business manager. (When you work in radio and mentor kids, you don’t really think about having someone manage your career.) He only had one professional credit to his name, and that was as a background actor in the movie “Sparkle”—a production set he only went to because it was being filmed in Detroit and he wanted to meet Whitney Houston, who had a starring role. But after two weeks of being around Houston and actors like Jordin Sparks, Derek Luke, Tamela Mann, and Tika Sumpter he wanted to pursue acting full-time.
“I finally had a trajectory for myself and knew what I wanted,” Jawan says.
“Motown: The Musical” premiered on Broadway in April 2013 and closed in January 2015 after 738 performances. Jawan, who was with the show for its entire run, thought that his career was about to take off. But then it didn’t.
“I thought that once you got on Broadway, you made it,” he says. “I thought my career was going to jump from there, that movie and television offers would start coming in. But it was the complete opposite.”
Jawan took time to capture the moment during his return visit to Eastern’s campus last summer.
Sunshine on a Cloudy Day
When “Motown: The Musical” closed, Jawan found himself out of work and figuring out how to survive. He wanted to stay in New York, a city that gave him his heartbeat. He spent two years auditioning and taking on small acting jobs, determined to keep his dream alive. He still didn’t have an agent. To make ends meet, he started working as a customer service operator for Broadway Across America, helping people with ticket exchanges. He was helping patrons across the U.S. get to theatre performances. He just wasn’t on stage himself—until he used his lunch break to audition for the jukebox musical “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations.”
He won the part. The kid from Motown was again tapped to play the legendary Melvin Franklin. This time, he was a principal cast member and starred during 2018 runs in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, and Toronto—and when the musical opened at the Imperial Theatre on Broadway in 2019.
The energetic show, which features 31 songs, was lauded by critics. “Ain’t Too Proud” was nominated for 12 Tony Awards in 2019, winning for choreography. The cast performed at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and on shows like Jimmy Kimmel Live! and The View. The New York Times noted Jawan’s “thundering bass” and Variety said that he “uses his basso voice with perfect comic timing.” Oprah Winfrey, John Legend, Chita Rivera, and Berry Gordy watched him perform.
And, of course, so did Otis Williams, who hand-picked him to become a full-fledged member of The Temptations in 2022. When the offer came, Jawan says that he asked Williams repeatedly if he was serious or joking. Williams was serious, of course; he wanted Jawan as a real-deal Temptation. It was his full-circle moment.
His first official performance as a Temptation came on June 8, 2022, in Edmonds, Washington, and he’s sung, danced, and doo-woped his way through more than 40 shows in the U.S. and Europe since.
As a principal cast member of “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations,” Jawan attended the 2019 Tony Awards at New York’s Radio City Music Hall. (Photo by Taylor Hill/FilmMagic)
Can Fly Like a Bird in the Sky
As the conversation in the Judy Sturgis Hill Building winds down, Jawan appears completely unaffected by his success. Jawan is still Jawan. He smiles and shrugs at how it all turned out; how the kid from Detroit with no agent landed ensemble and principal roles in Broadway productions and was then plucked to join one of the most iconic musical groups in history. He admits he was naïve when he first started his entertainment journey and implores young entertainers to be more prepared than he was. “Learn the business first,” he says. “Learn how to negotiate a contract. Learn what you should ask for because people aren’t paying you what you’re worth. They’re paying what you negotiate.”
He takes one last look around the Sponberg Theatre; he has a red-carpet event in Detroit later in the evening and needs to say goodbye. He hugs everyone in the room, from his oldest friends and mentors to the people he just met.
He has full representation now. An agent. A business manager. A publicist. Who knows what his future holds? Maybe it’s as Alexander said: good things happen to Jawan because of the way he interacts with others and how he enters spaces. He and partner Amber Wright now have a one-year-old son, Brayden, who will one day read the playbills and reviews, watch the videos, and see the irrefutable proof of his father’s talent and moxie.
It may seem like Jawan’s at the top of the mountain, but there’s a sense that he’s just getting started.
So, get ready, world. Here he comes.
Follow Jawan M. Jackson on Instagram: @jawanjackson
By Darcy Gifford
Photos by T. Rosa Studios and Getty Images