Jasmine Hawkins ‘23 set to produce College’s first predominantly Black musical, Jelly’s Last Jam

Jasmine+Hawkins

Photo: Jasmine Hawkins/Courtesy

Theatre and performance major Jasmine Hawkins ’23

By Margarita Ivanova

Sophomore theatre and performance major Jasmine Hawkins is set to become the first Emerson student to produce a musical with a predominantly Black cast at the college. The show is in the midst of planning an in-person production that is expected to open Fall of 2021 due to COVID-19.

Jelly’s Last Jam is based on Jelly Morton, an American jazz pianist and one of the initial driving forces behind the genre’s growth in the early 1900s. As well as providing the world with a cultural understanding of jazz, Jelly’s Last Jam tackles issues of systemic racism that still impedes on the lives of Black communities. 

Jelly’s Last Jam is based on a lot of Black issues in this country’s history, and Emerson doesn’t do enough shows like this,” Hawkins said. “It’s a musical that tackles issues of colorism and financial disparities while also tying in the history of jazz.”

Growing up with a gospel-singing mother and jazz musician father, Hawkins has always been immersed in music. She was first introduced to Jelly’s Last Jam her junior year of high school and began listening to the sound track along with Buddy Bolden’s tunes. Bolden, also known as “the jazz archivist,” played a huge role in standardizing the New Orleans Jazz Ensemble.

Listening to the soundtracks put her in a state of euphoria, Hawkins said. 

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However, Hawkin’s love for the music was overshadowed on a walk down Tremont Street this semester. As the soundtrack blasted through her earbuds, she said the rest of the world felt like a music video. Walking past a Black homeless man, Jasmine noticed that his dancing perfectly mimicked the upbeat song playing. Hawkins described how he seemed genuinely happy, but those around him didn’t seem amused—she said everyone who passed looked at him in disgust. 

“When I saw that homeless man, it was like the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Hawkins said. “It made me so angry, and I didn’t want to feel helpless anymore.” 

In that moment, Hawkins said she knew she wanted to use her role in Emerson’s theater industry to combat stigmas against the Black community. Being driven by her own experience with racism in Boston led Hawkins to dedicate her time to honor people like Bolden, whose work she felt had been overlooked in the jazz industry due to his race.

Hawkins said experiencing Black history through shows and visuals can give students a better understanding of the culture.

The Emerson community as a whole does not do enough to represent Black culture, she said.

“There’s even a statue of Norman Lear in front of Emerson, who made money off Black culture, but nothing depicting the actual culture behind it,” Hawkins said. “At Emerson, we read about August Wilson plays in classes and have these discussions, but we won’t actually perform them.”

Hawkins is pushing to open the show’s curtains at the Cutler Majestic Theatre, Emerson’s largest theater. 

“The show should be in the Cutler because it fits the time period and aesthetic of the show, and I will do everything in my power to get it,” Hawkins said.

Not only will the Cutler Majestic match the show’s setting, but the seating availability can promote social distancing. The audience capacity of 1,200 will allow for the audience to be separated and distanced by groups.

Complications raised by COVID-19 pushed the opening for Jelly’s Last Jam’s from Spring 2021 to next fall, Hawkins said. The show’s casting will be decided virtually and is not yet set in stone. She is also partnering with student organizations like RareWorks, a theatre company that aids the underrepresented. This organization can help sponsor the show and also help Hawkins obtain a production team, she said.

Social media platforms like Instagram and Tik Tok have helped Jelly’s Last Jam gain donations. In November, Hawkins’ GoFundMe blew up on TikTok through one of her good friends, Charlotte Odusanya, a sophomore with 102,000 followers on the app. It helped Jasmine surpass her goal of $6,000, and the GoFundMe now sits at $7,161. 

“It’s not something I would’ve ever expected,” Hawkins said. “It made me so happy sitting back and watching the numbers go up so much in a matter of four days.”  

Putting together a show like Jelly’s Last Jam requires the help of other students and faculty. Sophomore and performing arts major McKennen Cambell and Director of Student Leadership and Engagement Jason Meier, are teaming up with Hawkins to put together the production. 

Meier spoke highly of Hawkins’ passion for the project.

“Jasmine has really put a lot of heart and soul into this, and our job is to help guide her forward and turn this passion into a reality,” Meier said.

Meier has connected with different student organizations to reserve spaces, but the circumstances regarding place and time remain in an unfamiliar gray area during the pandemic. 

SiouxSanna Ramirez-Cruz, a professor in the musical theatre department, said she connected with Hawkins through a former student. 

“I didn’t seek to advise a student,” Ramirez-Cruz said. “This was initiated by students supporting students. That in itself is evidence that we are creating change. Discrimination back then wasn’t talked about, and now we are starting to scratch the surface. As for me, the whole point of being in this industry as a woman of color is to help.”

As an artist, producer, director, and choreographer, Ramirez-Cruz is guiding Hawkins through the production process. 

“I love Jasmine’s spirit, tenacity, and fire,” Ramirez-Cruz said. “From day one, she knew exactly why she wanted to represent the Black community at Emerson, and because of COVID’s impact on this industry, there’s gonna be a bigger appetite for us to reunite and support one another.”

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