Jackson Barnes keeps count of the number of shows he’s been in.
He started at age 4 when he found theater at the Arts Academy in High Point. Now, as a junior at High Point University, he hit 65 shows this spring when landed the starring role of Jesus in the university’s production of “Godspell.”
He started counting because theater creates something that he calls “magical.” Today, he counts his shows because he sees theater as vital to showing what the world can be.
“You never know who is in the audience, what they need or have –– or don’t have,” he says. “You just hope they can take something away from the show, and I believe personally that the stories we tell have to say something. We have to put happiness into the world.”
Barnes, a junior theater performance major from Archdale, North Carolina, is one of two Extraordinary Leaders for the month of January.
He’s a Siegfried Leadership Fellow and a member of three honor societies. He has made the dean’s list every semester.
He had accompanied prospective students and their families around campus as a University Ambassador, and he helps coordinate the Wednesday services at the Hayworth Chapel as a member of the university’s Board of Stewards.
He even plays the box drum with the chapel’s Collision Praise and Worship Band. His faith is important to him. Barnes, the grandson of two ministers, grew up in the church. But theater holds his heart and his passion.
That, Barnes says, is his future.
Last spring, as a global pandemic worried the world, Barnes looked for ways to inspire his own world. So, he got a journal and started writing down show ideas that HPU’s Department of Theater and Dance could produce in the fall.
He filled two journals. Then, he called Ken Elston, the interim dean of the David Hayworth College of Arts and Sciences, for help.
The department was planning to stage virtual performances during the pandemic, but Barnes saw nothing for musical theater students like himself. Barnes, a musical theater minor, had an idea of how to change that.
Barnes wanted to put together what he called a virtual show of Broadway numbers. He’d record musical theater students in a studio in the Nido R. Qubein School of Communication and have them lip-sync their songs all across campus. And he wanted Elston to help him put it together.
“You want to do that with me?” Elston asked.
“Yes,” Barnes replied.
Sam McGlone, a senior theater major, helped with the video production, and the three of them created what Barnes had brainstormed for weeks in his two journals.
He called it “Virtual Musical Theater Cabaret,” one of two campus productions Barnes has created and directed on campus. The first was “Backwards Broadway” last spring before the pandemic.
With ““Virtual Musical Theater Cabaret,” Barnes selected songs that spoke of finding hope, finding faith and going after justice. These songs, Barnes believes, spoke to the tension of the time.
HPU students were interviewed about how they felt about navigating the pandemic. Then, they sang 10 songs Barnes picked out. Those songs included “No One Is Alone” from “Into The Woods,” “Light” from “Next to Normal,” and “Don’t Rain On My Parade” from “Funny Girl.”
Barnes selected for himself “Broadway, Here I Come!” from “Smash.”
For him, that song spoke to the resiliency of an artist. It also spoke to the resiliency of him.
“I didn’t want the times to go by without us using our voice,” he says. “I felt like it was our job, and what we’ve been trained for at HPU is to dedicate ourselves to spread our power and light and passion to the world. “
Barnes steered “Virtual Musical Theater Cabaret” from start to finish. Elston was impressed.
“He talked about the shape of the thing and the songs he wanted to do, and we directed it together,” Elston says. “With Sam McGlone as the videographer, the three of us were a creative team. But this was Jackson’s idea, and he did a lot of the work.”
In August 2019, Elston came as the new dean of the Department of Theater and Dance. During those first few weeks, he saw Barnes everywhere.
“I didn’t know anyone on campus, and everywhere I’d go, I’d see his smiling face,” Elston says. “He’d wave at me, I’d wave at him, and then, when I was picking up my university parking pass, there he was again. Literally.
“Finally, I said, ‘You’re my guardian angel.’”
The nickname stuck. Barnes started calling Elston his guardian angel, too. Today, he walks around campus, spots Elston and says “Hey, GA!”
Barnes’ personality has impacted more than Elston on campus. Take the barista Barnes calls “Mrs. Carol.”
“Has anyone ever told you that you have the most wonderful smile?” she asked Barnes once. “Your happiness is contagious.”
That’s Carol Weaver, a barista at Starbucks in the Slane Student Center. She and Barnes talk every day when he picks up his breakfast at Starbucks. She knows his order by heart: venti iced strawberry acai refresher and a sausage, egg and cheddar breakfast sandwich.
She also knows when he’s down. Two weeks into the spring semester, Barnes came by for breakfast, and his smile had disappeared.
“Are you alright, Jackson?” she asked.
Barnes told her about the death of his maternal grandfather, the Rev. Charles Douglas Byrd, in December. Barnes called him “Papa.” They talked and sent text messages to one another every morning.
Weaver offered Barnes her condolences, and when he heard about the grandfather’s death, Elston reached out to Barnes, too. He wanted to make sure he’s alright. Weeks later, Barnes holds those two responses close.
“People truly care here,” he says. “They make us feel comfortable, that we’re valued and respected. I have a lot of friends who go to college from North Carolina to Hawaii, and they don’t have the relationship with the faculty and staff we have here.”
Last February, Barnes wore his favorite purple tie with his blue suit. He was slated to speak in front of college officials attending the annual conference of the North Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities.
HPU officials picked him to speak before HPU President Dr. Nido Qubein. Barnes is no stranger to a stage. But this was different. He spoke as a first-generation college student, the only child of Billy and Jackie Barnes.
Barnes’ father works as a general manager of a furniture company, and his mother manages the daily operational activities of the clinical education team in HPU’s Physician Assistant program. NCICU awarded Barnes a grant that helped him attend HPU.
“We are all working together to achieve one goal, to provide more North Carolina individuals with an education,” he told the audience. “We must protect this and provide students like me the chance to experience this for themselves.
“I challenge you to make this possible. In the wise words of Thomas Jefferson, “If you want something you have never had, you must be willing to do something you have never done.”
After his speech, Qubein stopped him.
“Wow,” Qubein told Barnes. “You are really coming for my job. Tie and everything.”
Barnes laughed. He still remembers the advice Qubein gave him and other freshmen during the President’s Seminar on Life Skills.
“He told us, ‘Never walk the earth with your head down,’” Barnes says. “‘You have to walk with purpose. You have to walk with your head up.’ That lit a fire under me.”
Barnes wants to take that spirit to New York City, straight to Broadway. But first, he’s going to Dollywood.
After graduation next May, Barnes wants to move to Tennessee and become a performer at the park he visited always as a child. He wants to perform at the theme park created by legendary entertainer Dolly Parton. He wants to perform at Dollywood.
After a few years performing at Dollywood, Barnes wants to go to New York City. He’s spent two weeks
there as a rising college freshman acting and working with performers from iTheatrics, a musical theater program for young people.
Now, he wants to return. He’s worked with the Broadway Collective, a program that allowed Barnes to work virtually with Alex Brightman, the star of the Broadway shows “Beetlejuice” and “School of Rock.”
“This is something I’ve been put on the earth to do,” Barnes says.
So, he’ll follow Qubein’s advice when he goes to New York City. He’ll go there with his head up.
“High Point taught me to dream big,” he says. “They taught me to trust that feeling.”