When the absurdity of life started outpacing the farcical sensibility of her work, Crystal Jackson gave up on playwriting. “There’s nothing my voice can add to the conversation right now,” she thought. Then Kitchen Dog Theater came calling.
Jackson, a Houston native now living in Austin, has a relationship with Kitchen Dog dating back to 2011, when the Dallas company produced a reading of what became, she believed, her final play, The Singularity.
Two years ago, looking for new works to produce, the company reached out to Jackson.
“I had this Truck Stop thing banging around in my head,” she says, referring to The Last Truck Stop, now premiering at Kitchen Dog, “and was like, well, I’ll knock out 10 pages, see if it’s any good, I’ll send it to them if it is, and we’ll see what they say.”
That accomplished, her plan was to finish the play.
But three months later, when Kitchen Dog asked for the rest, she hadn’t yet written a word. And Kitchen Dog wanted it by the following Monday.
“That was three days away, so I just buckled down and banged this thing out,” she says. “The benefit of writing like that is you really can’t second guess yourself, you’re just trying to get it on paper. And I think that also helped me change my writing style a little bit, because I wasn’t self conscious about writing more from the heart. I just kind of let it roll.”
Her new play was picked for a staged reading at Kitchen Dog’s annual New Works Festival last year. This year, as the festival’s centerpiece, The Last Truck Stop is receiving a full production. It runs June 8-25.
The play is set in 2045 in a dystopia suffering from infrastructure failure, the fallout from climate change, AI’s effect on the economy and the move away from democracy, Jackson says. The West Coast has been closed, cars have been outlawed and the government is herding people into corporate housing in cities to the east. The only vehicles on the road are self-driving 18-wheelers.
Jackson’s protagonists are holed up in Truth or Consequences, N.M. Gladys (Diane Box Worman), a retired trucker and owner of a truck stop, is resisting the move. The local postal carrier Uncle Hank (Jamal Sterling), Gladys’ on-again, off-again lover, is trying to persuade her to go to their designated city, El Paso. Her niece Zelda (Kat Lozano) is with them.
“There are these different power struggles among the three of them with going or not going,” Jackson says. “Then the CB radio sparks up with someone who’s traveling by foot.” Named Rainbow and played by Claire Carson, “she has a story to tell that pretty much changes the entire situation.”
Jackson says the play looks at what impact it has on the psyche when “you can’t just go where you want, where you can’t get in your car and get lost, take the wrong exit and find like the best burger of your life or a beautiful view or whatever. ... You’re very tied to your employer and don’t have a lot of power.”
While using the near-future science-fiction genre, Truck Stop lives in the realm of possibility, according to Jackson, unlike her play Please Remove This Stuffed Animal From My Head, which had a far-out premise in dealing with abortion rights.
“It doesn’t have that absurd level that allows you to stay a little bit more distant,” she says. “It’s as political as the other plays I’ve written, but it’s more human and more realistic and less allegorical. These people are real to me. And this future is actually a potential real future versus a skewed view of the future. I do think things could go downward, they could go the direction of the reality in this play.”
Jackson, who works for a Houston health care system, has been a professional writer her entire career, first as a grant writer for nonprofits and then as a creative director and copywriter in marketing and advertising.
In 2007, she started a blog called Fight Stupidization, “ranting and raving about the world or what I just ate.” It grew into a campaign that included bumper stickers and T-shirts.
“Those two words seem like the most successful I’ve ever written. People took to it. Sixteen years later, I still get a couple of sticker requests a week.”
Jackson grew up in what she says was a funny family. She’s a comedy fan, from standup and sketch shows to the darkly humorous novels and short stories of George Saunders.
She was born in the 1970s, and there’s a flavor of the era in Truck Stop, including the CB radio communication that puts the plot in motion. Gladys owns an old cassette player on which she plays vintage music. As a corollary to the play, Jackson has created a ‘70s mixtape you can stream on Spotify and other music services.
“I think back to when I was a kid, Smokey and the Bandit and ‘Convoy,’ where truckers were like these modern-day knights traveling the countryside and pissing off cops, flipping the middle finger and all of that,” she says. “I love that juxtaposition of the future, but still having that open-road desire to roam, that desire to buck the system.”
But Jackson put her hopes for the future not on boomers or her fellow Gen-X-ers, but the millennials and Gen-Z-ers who surround her at her day job.
“They’re a different breed, and I think that they potentially will change the world,” she says. “The millennials, they’re very good with work-life balance and setting boundaries. I’ve learned a lot from them in that regard. And then the Gen-Z-ers, who grew up on the Internet, are super collaborative, they’re creative, and more open to the diversity of humanity. I’m hoping that these newer generations will be able to take the mess that they’re being handed and make things better.”
June 8-25 at Trinity River Arts Center, 2600 N. Stemmons Freeway. Suite 180. $15-$30. kitchendogtheater.org.