I remember the first time Dr. Paul Jackson called me a “little diva.” I was in my first college theatre production, playing the role of Antigone in These Seven Sicknesses. Dr. J came into one of our early rehearsals to observe as the advisor for the project, and afterwards he called me out from my backstage perch to appear in front of him, center stage.
“You’re going to do big things, Miss Maddie,” he said. “You little diva!”
I remember being shocked and flattered, and a just a little bit suspicious. I had a grand total of four lines in the entire play, and was onstage for maybe three minutes of the one-act. How could he see any of my potential in those three minutes?
But what I came to know about Dr. J in the two years I learned from him was that he knew his students. He knew people in general, really. He saw you, saw right into your heart and soul, and knew you. It didn’t take him long to know you, to love you and to care for you with all of his big, welcoming heart. Once he knew you, he would never forget you.
And those who knew Dr. J will never forget him, even after his passing almost three months ago.
Dr. J was a professor, a department chair, a mentor, a husband, a friend, a creative genius, a cat-lover and a brilliant theatre maker. His sudden death on Aug. 8 left all of us confused and grieving. Now, at the end of October, former Miami students of the beloved Dr. J could finally come together in the Gates-Abegglen Theatre with faculty, friends and family in celebration of a life well lived by our favorite diva.
When I walked into the theater, a slideshow of photos was playing to the sound of “Landslide.” Photos of a youthful Dr. J were mixed in with the Dr. J I knew towards the end of his life. I was overwhelmed by the number of alumni I recognized in the audience; I felt proud to be a part of a department that was close enough to call family. We needed each other in this moment.
The service began with our dean of the College of Creative Arts, Elizabeth Mullenix, welcoming us through a tear-filled tribute. We then all stood and sang “Seasons of Love” together, our voices bouncing around the theater and floating up towards the ceiling.
The memorial was a two-hour rollercoaster of emotions, complete with readings of Dr. J’s favorite writers, songs from his favorite musicians and countless stories told by his former students, colleagues, husband and childhood friend.
It was almost a replica of his retirement party from December of 2016; former student Brenton Sullivan and current senior Joshua George even reenacted an impromptu performance Dr. J had given at the retirement celebration, a creative twist on a famous scene from August Wilson’s “Fences.” But the lack was felt wholeheartedly in the absence of Dr. J’s boisterous laugh and squeals of “diva” in between presenters.
The speakers all paid tribute to Dr. J by letting out some of his signature phrases, imitating his “mmms” and calling out “Lorraine!!” just as he used to. Gion Defrancesco even played a meowing cat ringtone in the middle of his speech, calling remembrance to Dr. J’s love of his three “children.”
I watched as my two best friends, both 2017 Miami grads, took the stage separately to pay their respects to a man that changed their lives in the best of ways. I cried in the audience, overwhelmed by pride for both of them and by gratitude that Dr. J’s legacy lives on in both of them, that they were able to be seen by Dr. J and grow from his guidance.
Each of us had a slip of paper in our programs with a different Dr. J quote printed on it. We were encouraged to share them with those around us in the middle of the ceremony, and mine was a crowd pleaser: “But is she authentic. Oops the binary we shall continue,” in the context of “after a short FB chat on Beyonce.” It made me smile to have this little bit of Dr. J’s humor brought back through a simple slip of paper.
Dr. J, although an entertaining, hilarious man, was also a brilliant man. He changed the way the entire theatre department ran and brought in students that Miami struggles to recruit. He made sure that the women and black students of the department were seen. As so many of the speakers said, he saw potential in his students when even they couldn’t; just as he did with me as Antigone. Dr. J wouldn’t allow us to fail, and he was always there to make sure we proved his predictions right.
The service ended with a recessional and pouring of libations to honor our ancestors. We were all encouraged to call out the names of the deceased while Dr. Tammy Kernodle poured water into the base of a plant onstage. “Ashe,” we called out together after each name. “Ashe” is the West African word for making things happen, used interchangeably with “Amen.”
I can’t tell you any of the stories that were shared on Saturday at the memorial — they are not my stories to tell. But Dr. J is a part of my story, and I am forever grateful for the things he did to build the theatre department and how his high spirits and generosity shaped the lives of my friends, teachers and myself.
Because of Dr. J, I now know to embrace the diva in me. I hope to make him proud as he continues to guide us from the afterlife. Ashe, Dr. J., you little diva. Ashe.
In his honor, the Dr. Paul K. Bryant-Jackson Memorial Scholarship Fund at Miami University is collecting donations. You may donate by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org.