After completing graduate studies in journalism at the University of Mississippi in 1996, Will Jacks opened a photography studio in his hometown of Cleveland, Mississippi, where he still lives. As his work and career developed, Jacks expanded his studio into a regional photography gallery, the Wiljax Gallery for Southern Photography. In 2013 he organized the exhibition Eudora Welty: 27 Portraits, which garnered recognition by Time magazine. Jacks has taught at the University of Mississippi in Oxford and currently teaches at Delta State University in Cleveland. He is currently working on a monograph of his photographs, focusing on the local communities of the Mississippi Delta, to be published by the University Press of Mississippi in 2019.
For many years Jacks documented the lively nightlife of Po’ Monkey’s, a juke joint located in a small house amid cotton fields in unincorporated Bolivar County. Juke joints, according to the African American writer and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston, who is referenced in Nikky Finney’s poem Black Woman Moose Lodge #719 written for the Southbound project, were places where African American laborers could find pleasure and leisure in dancing, drinking, and gambling during their off-hours. Most have long since closed as the social life and economy of the agrarian South has shifted away from sharecropping, but Po’ Monkey’s persisted until the death of the joint’s proprietor in 2016.
The joint is named for its owner Willie “Po’ Monkey” Seaberry, who passed away at the age of seventy-five. Seaberry was known for welcoming everyone—locals as well as national and even international visitors—to his lounge, for being a strong ambassador for the Mississippi Delta, and for fostering an interracial community of blues enthusiasts. At six feet tall and with a penchant for dressing in colorful and dapper suits, hats, and even wigs on the Thursday nights he opened the blues lounge, Seaberry cut a striking figure. He called Thursday night “Family Night,” and Jacks notes that these were occasions for the charismatic patriarch to reconnect with old classmates and strengthen bonds to his home community. Also eye-catching was the lounge’s decor of toy monkeys, silver disco ball, snapshots, pinups of scantily clad women, and strings of lights hanging from the ceiling and walls. Seaberry lived in a small room in the back of the building and worked as the straw boss at a local family farm. In 2009 the Mississippi State Blues Commission placed a historic marker at Po’ Monkey’s, designating it as a stop on the Mississippi Blues Trail.
Jacks’s photographs capture the intimacy and intensity of the juke joint. Po’ Monkey Keeping Watch (2012), for example, shows a lively space filled with people, lights, decorative objects and photographs, cups of beer, and Seaberry standing at ease in the center, casually observing the activity that buzzes about him. Though the patrons are packed tightly in the room, Jacks’s image feels not claustrophobic but jovial, and even familial.
Other photographs focus on individuals inside or outside the club. In Wendy and Meme (2013) a mother and daughter dance under a strobe light, smiling and snapping their fingers in time with the music. Two other portraits depict men who stopped in the middle of a game of pool in order for Jacks to capture their individual portraits. In David (2013) an elderly African American man in a cowboy hat and jean jacket offers a warm, understated smile. The portrait of Chris (2013) catches a young white man lost in thought. The portrait was made at Halloween and the subject has donned fashions from another era, complementing his long, flowing locks and full facial hair with a fur-lined leisure suit opened at the neck to show off his thick chest hair. The photographer also captured scenes of activity spilling outside the club. The subjects of each of these images greet the photographer’s eye with friendliness, casual interest, and approachability. Jacks’s intimate photographs invite the viewer into the unique experience of attending Po’ Monkey’s on “Family Night.”