When Rodney Earl Jackson, Jr went on car trips with his parents growing up — on picnics or to visit other family members — they would blast The Temptations. His mother preferred the earlier music, written by David Ruffin, while his father liked the later, more Funkadelic songs. After growing up with the music of one of Motown’s supergroups, now Jackson stars in Ain’t Too Proud —The Life and Times of The Temptations at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, a theater he went to growing up.
Jackson, who attended San Francisco’s Ruth Asawa School of the Arts before getting a B.F.A. from Carnegie Mellon, is familiar with the Temptations onstage as well as from hearing it in his parents’ car — he traveled around the country in the ensemble of Motown the Musical, which gave him the opportunity to meet Motown founder Berry Gordy, play golf with Smokey Robinson, and sing onstage with Stevie Wonder.
The arts were a huge part of Jackson’s childhood: He was involved in SFArtsEd and Young People’s Teen Musical Theater Company. Now, he’s providing that opportunity for other kids in San Francisco, with the San Francisco Bay Area Theater Company, which he co-founded with another SOTA alum, Marcello Pereira. SFBATCO provides mentoring and opportunities for young actors here, particularly actors of color. Jackson, the artistic director, said he grew tired of hearing how actors needed to get out of town to make it.
“I went home to start a theater company,” he said, sitting in the shade outside the Berkeley Rep before the day’s rehearsal. “I was fed up with the idea of going to New York to be successful, like one of a billion other actors.”
Jackson is busy getting ready for the theater company’s big show at the end of the month at the African American Arts and Cultural Complex, where the theater company is in residence. The play, Salt Pepper Ketchup, by his Carnegie Mellon classmate Josh Wilder, deals with gentrification.
Along with putting that play on, Jackson has his role as a swing in the Temptations musical — which means he has to be ready to go on to replace any of the five leads. So he needs to know all their lines and all their dance moves, and that’s no small thing. Jackson takes on the responsibility in a typically sunny manner.
“The awesome thing about being a swing is I’m always learning — I never get complacent,” he said. “Just the role of Otis Williams is a monster — but it’s all of them — all the songs and each with a different harmony, and different dance numbers, and there’s the doughnut that spins on the stage kind of like a record, so it could be unsafe, and you have to look out for it, and you have to look good in the costume. There’s a lot to think about.”
Ain’t Too Proud deals with more than the beautiful music, sharp suits, and intricate dance moves of the Temptations, Jackson says.
“It uses all their songs to tell the story of these five men who were the biggest R&B group in the world. That’s huge for people who look like me and people who are me. Because of these men, I’m able to do what I’m doing,” he said. “It was a monster of a time for America — it reminds me of now and what we’re going through with Trump politically and racially.”
Jackson has nothing but good words for the people working on the play, saying how much he’s learned from two-time Tony Award-winning director Des McAnuff, and how choreographer Sergio Trujillo makes sure every detail is perfect. He’s particularly excited about working with Obie-winner Dominique Morisseau, who adapted Williams’ book for the stage. (Incidentally, Otis Williams is the original group’s sole surviving member, although the Temptations continue to perform.)
“It’s a story about brotherhood,” he said. “I’m so glad a Black woman is writing the story of Black brotherhood. Dominique grew up in Detroit, and her perspective is so accurate and honest. It’s writing without testosterone. Her words are so poetic.”
When he joined The Book of Mormon, the show was already established, Jackson says. With this, he’s excited to be part of creating something new. The amount of work is almost unthinkable, he adds, but he and the others are glad to do it.
“It makes us happy to spread joy,” he said.
Ain’t Too Proud — The Life and Times of The Temptations, through Oct. 22 at Berkeley Rep Roda Theatre, 2025 Addison St. Berkeley, $40-$135, 510-647-2949 or berkeleyrep.org