Tonia Jackson (red sweater) enjoys a light moment with students at the Utopian Academy for the Arts. The “Greenleaf” co-star has been teaching drama at the Clayton County charter school since August. HENRY TAYLOR / HENRY.TAYLOR@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Life with Gracie: Oprah network actress is star teacher at Georgia academy

Fans of the Oprah Winfrey television series “Greenleaf” know her as Janice Turner, the mother of one of Mac’s alleged sexual abuse victims.

At Clayton County’s Utopian Academy for the Arts, she’s Ms. Jackson, actress, artist in residence and drama teacher.

That’s one interesting tidbit you may not have known about the “Greenleaf” co-star, but Tonia Jackson’s role as teacher isn’t all that new at Utopian. It’s hardly unusual, in fact, to see celebrities walk these halls. Casting director Reuben Cannon has and so have hip-hop artist Ludacris and members of the Atlanta Metropolitan Studios and the Atlanta Ballet.

But this isn’t about name-dropping. At a time when many of our schools have been stripped of band and other arts programs, everything that happens at Utopian is about the arts.

Students here study drama, visual and culinary arts, theater, dance, music appreciation, band and media.

“I wanted to provide areas of study that both parents and students were interested in and were being recommended for elimination in the Clayton County public schools,” said Artesius Miller, founder and executive director of the 200-student academy, the first public charter school in the county.

He opened Utopian in 2013 and despite a rocky start — for weeks, students were blocked from entering the school — the academy has rebounded nicely, outperforming other public schools on the Georgia Milestones assessment, a state curriculum test that examines a student’s mastery of standards in math, science, social studies, reading and English/language arts.

Tonia Jackson (center) provides direction to her students Kyla Bass (left) and Janaiya Turner (right) during an afternoon drama class at Utopian Academy for the Arts in Riverdale. Jackson, a co-star in the OWN television series “Greenleaf,” teaches drama at the school. HENRY TAYLOR / HENRY.TAYLOR@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Miller was able to lure Jackson to the school last year after talking to another local actress and mutual friend.

“In the midst of our conversation, she told me about Tonia,” he said.

The initial plan was to have Jackson sub for the academy’s drama teacher while the instructor was out on medical leave in August, but by the end of the semester, the actress had not only won the hearts of parents, she’d sealed the deal with the academy’s sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders.

“We were so impressed with the impact she made on our students, we found a way to keep her on board for the continuation of the school year,” Miller said.

Many of the students discovered they had a natural affinity for acting. Some who considered themselves introverts came out of their shells. All of them were excited about coming to class, and they were all asking Miller the same question.

“Is Ms. Jackson going to be here the whole year?”

Miller wasn’t sure how to answer. He started sitting in on the classes.

He saw a professional artist lending years of experience to his students. And he witnessed students memorize lines, expand their vocabulary and develop into artists.

RELATED: Riverdale vs. Utopian Academy charter school

“She has a gift,” Miller said of Jackson.

Jackson, a transplant from the “Twin Cities” of Minneapolis-St. Paul, honed her craft working in regional theater, film and television, including here in Atlanta, where she stars in the FX series of the same name.

So, why put in time in a grade school classroom?

“I learned a long time ago that you don’t just get to be an artist,” she said. “You’re supposed to use it for social change. I like to call myself an actor but also a social change artist.”

In many ways, Jackson said theater is sacred. If you get the chance to climb upon a stage, it’s a blessing.

“That means I have to figure out how I can give back in a real way,” she said.

Jackson credits the arts with saving her life — literally.

Because of the neighborhood she grew up in, where the haves and have nots blended together, she could’ve easily gone the wrong way. Lucky for her, there were youth advocates who reached out and pulled her from the brink of destruction.

“I found the Black Box Theater and the light bulb came on in my life,” she said. “Once I got there in that space, the world opened up to me.”

And for the first time, someone other than her believed she had something to offer.

“That’s what I want to give these kids,” she said.

Tonia Jackson (center) directs her afternoon drama class during warmups at Utopian Academy for the Arts in Riverdale. Jackson, who co-stars in the popular Oprah Winfrey television series “Greenleaf,” says theater saved her life and she hopes her efforts at the charter school will have the same impact on students there. HENRY TAYLOR / HENRY.TAYLOR@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Wondering how art education can make a difference?

Years of research shows it’s linked closely to almost everything that we say we want for our children and demand from our schools: academic achievement, emotional and social development, civic engagement, and opportunity.

Involvement in the arts is associated with gains in reading, math, cognitive ability, critical thinking, and verbal skills.

Jackson said, for instance, you can use rap to teach kids math. You can use ensemble work and teach them how to work together to complete a science project. And if you’re given to being scatterbrained, memorization helps retain information.

“And then to get up, if you suffer from low self-esteem, and people clap for you, the world just opens up,” she said.

There’s no telling how long Jackson will remain for this gig, but Miller would like to keep her around for as long as she’s able.

“I’m trying to figure out how to balance all this stuff,” she said.

Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

In addition to writing and acting, Jackson owns a coaching business working with professionals and kids already in the industry.

For now, her focus is here with her students, and “Greenleaf,” of course.

The series enjoyed its second season opener March 15 on OWN.

When Jackson’s character was introduced during the first season, there was no guarantee she’d return.

Now there’s no question. Her talent made sure of that. She has a recurring role.

If I were a betting woman, her next recurring role will be in Utopian’s classroom.

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