On Thursday, Jan. 26, the Bardo Arts Center at WCU held The Rising of The Necessary Diva, an autobiographical account of WCU’s very own Dr. Tiffany Renée Jackson‘s life.
With bright outfits and an even brighter personality, all eyes were on Dr. Jackson throughout the one-woman show. Jackson was accompanied by a four-piece jazz band that helped move the narration.
The show, which was roughly two hours, complete with three acts and an intermission, told the story of Jackson’s life. Starting with a piano-accompanied singing of “Ave Maria”, the show navigated through Jackson’s childhood and family history, traumatic life events, the importance of religion in her life, how she found her voice and began singing, how her gifts at singing began opening doors, and how Jackson got involved in bodybuilding, fusing body and spirit.
Near the end of the performance, Jackson sang “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holliday, calling for dignity and justice for Black bodies. Dignity and justice for Black bodies were themes that were present throughout the story as Jackson described her family and meeting personal heroes, such as Oprah Winfrey and Nelson Mandela.
Jackson described her mother and father. Her mother worked as a sharecropper for a white family in Alabama. Jackson said her mother told her slavery may have technically ended in 1865, but her mother said she still worked as a slave picking cotton in the 1940s and 1950s. Jackson said her mother eventually had to leave the job, fearing sexual assault when the husband in the family began making advances. Her mother knew that if he raped her, nobody would believe her.
Jackson’s father was educated. He enrolled in the military but was drafted to Vietnam. He went awol, refusing to fight for a country that wouldn’t fight for him, like his personal hero, Muhammad Ali. He was arrested and imprisoned in Leavenworth. He returned but was never the same. Jackson’s mother decided to move to Connecticut to be with family and hopefully offer Jackson and her older brother a better life.
Further calling for dignity for Black bodies, Jackson told of her exposure to the violence of the crack epidemic of the 1980s which she described as a war on people.
Near the end of the performance, she told the story of Saartjie “Sarah” Baartman, a Khoikhoi woman who was taken from her homeland in South Africa by Dutch slavers. She was paraded around as a “freak show” due to her skin color and the shape of her body. She was stripped of dignity, poked, prodded, mocked, and molested so others could profit from her. After she died, her body was kept on display by Europeans for further profit until 1994 when Nelson Mandela called for her body to be returned to her home. Baartman was finally returned home and buried in 2002, despite dying in 1816 and having parts of her body on display until 1974.
While calling for dignity, “The Rising of The Necessary Diva” also highlighted Jackson’s values, obstacles and lows she has transcended, including sexual abuse as a minor but eventually healing her inner child, and her accomplishments.
Her faith, music, and family were present motifs throughout. There had been moments throughout her life when she felt called to pray, such as when she was touring colleges, away from home one weekend, and felt the need to pray for her brother. She returned home and found out he had been shot but was okay. She was exposed to many forms of music from gospel to Italian classical to hip-hop, R&B, and jazz. All the music which impacted her singing was present throughout the show, including an intermission without Jackson’s voice where the four-piece band gave a jazz instrumental break.
Growing up in Connecticut, Jackson was able to go to New York frequently where she began singing in front of audiences. She experienced the violence of the 1980s crack epidemic through her first love, an outbreak she called “a war on people”. Per her biography, Jackson then got her Bachelor of Music Degree from the University of Michigan and also earned a Master’s, a Professional Studies Degree, and a Doctor of Musical Arts from Yale School of Music, Manhattan School of Music, and the University of Connecticut, respectively.
Jackson started working out and got into bodybuilding. After polishing her physical prowess, Jackson won a bodybuilding competition and was told that she was the necessary diva. She embraced the title and later appeared on America’s Got Talent as Necessarydiva, the opera-singing bodybuilder.
Jackson wrapped her performance with recanting how she met Oprah Winfrey and went to Africa, which allowed her to meet Nelson Mandela. This shifted her career more toward justice.
“In recent years, Dr. Jackson has been endeavored to provide advocacy in social justice reforms for public and private arts education organizations,” her biography says.
All in all, “The Rising of The Necessary Diva” was a beautiful, fun, and powerful performance. Dr. Jackson excellently told not only the story of her life, but stories of justice or, in the case of Saartjie Baartman, the lack thereof. For more Bardo events like Imani Winds or “She Kills Monsters”, visit https://www.wcu.edu/bardo-arts-center/.