This Broadway season has given rise to new Black voices on Broadway. Earlier on we had the works of Black playwrights making their Broadway debut including Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu with “Pass Over,” Keenan Scott II with “Thoughts of a Colored Man,” Douglas Lyons III with “Chicken And Biscuits.” Now we have Michael R. Jackson with the musical comedy “A Strange Loop,” which opened at the Lyceum Theatre at 149 W 45th Street on April 6. This musical comedy, with a book, music and lyrics by Jackson, represents a group not usually represented on Broadway: Black gay men. Jackson sat down with the AmNews to talk about his Broadway debut, though the musical comedy has already garnered many awards in its Off-Broadway run at Playwrights Horizons, a Q&A follows.
AmNews: What inspired you to write the book, music and lyrics to “A Strange Loop”?
MRJ: It began as a monologue that I started writing after I graduated from Undergraduate playwrighting at NYU. I was sort of unsure of what I was going to do with my life with a BFA and I had moved to this old lady’s house in the middle of nowhere in Jamaica Queens and I was applying for jobs and grad schools to figure out what I was going to do. In the middle of that I started writing a monologue that was called “why I can’t get work.” And the monologue was about a young black gay man, walking around New York City and trying to make sense of who he was as a person and his own sense of self-hatred. Then, I subsequently went to grade school at NYU to study musical theater writing as an aspiring lyricist and book writer. I learned how to write lyrics. The course was Graduate musical theater writing program. Over the course of the year, I immersed myself in musical theater and it was a form that spoke to the kind of writing I had been doing since I was a child. Fiction, poetry, very personal. The monologue and lyrics I was drawn to in school were personal. At the end of the first year, we had an assignment where the teacher said if you’re a lyricist whose never written music, or a composer whose never written lyrics and you want to try it, go for it. I grew up playing piano in church. I was very musically inclined, but I didn’t know how to write lyrics. In grade school I decided to try to write my own song. I wrote Memory Song, it’s kind of an 11 o’clock number in the show, but when I wrote it, it was a stand-alone song for me. It went over well in my class, and I was encouraged to write my own music. In my second year I was paired with a composer. My director read the monologue and the songs I started writing and we started trying to put some of the songs into the monologue and that transformed the piece into another piece, a one man show called, “Fast Food Town” that I performed at ARCS Nova. Twenty people showed up, two walked out in the middle of it. I learned from it that I didn’t want to be in this, a cabaret act, I wanted it to be a musical, an unconventional musical. The director I was working with started working on the book of the musical, then that’s when it made its transition into what is now called A Strange Loop. There were many years of development and I started working with another director.
AmNews: Why was this an important story to tell and in a musical comedy way?
MRJ: In the beginning I don’t know that I knew it was an important story to tell. I felt a sense of urgency about telling it because it was drawn from my life’s experience. I was feeling uncertain of who I was and where I belong. I don’t consider the piece autobiographical. It’s self-reverential. It’s emotionally autobiographical. The protagonist, Usher, I felt everything he has ever felt, but the experiences he goes through are not 100 percent what went on in my life. The songs that began to sort of fill up, they were just an extension of the monologue, what it felt like growing up gay and the religious community and what it feels like to be an aspiring artist. The representations I see of Black gay, it didn’t match the nuance of what I wanted to capture. The piece transformed into a musical, it was an organic transition.
AmNews: What are some of the frustrations that Black queer writers face about telling their stories?
MRJ: A big frustration I have is the lack of nuance that’s afforded to my story or our stories, we’re not all the same. There are things we have in common. The devil is in the details of our lives. I’m very fiercely independent minded and I think it’s important to be very specific. The nuances are very important, that’s what makes a piece of art a piece of art.
AmNews: The production has received so many honors—Pulitzer Prize, New York Drama Critic’s Circle Award for Best Musical; 5 Drama Desk Awards, 2 Lucille Lortel Awards; 6 Outer Critics Circle Awards; Obie Awards and the Off-Broadway Alliance Award for Best New Musical and now it’s coming to Broadway what does that mean to you?
MRJ: It means that the years of struggle and uncertainty and stopping and starting were worth it and it was worth it to take my time and develop this piece. From the time I wrote the monologue and then did it at Playwrights Horizons–16 years. I started at 22 and mounted it at 38. It’s a life’s work and it’s a piece that’s about a life, so to me that makes sense.
AmNews: What should audiences expect when they come to see “A Strange Loop”?
MRJ: They should expect to come see the journey of one person who contains multitudes. To see a Black queer expression that they maybe have never seen before on stage or anywhere frankly.
AmNews: What reaction do you want audiences to have to this musical?
MRJ: I want them to feel more than one thing. I grew up in a Baptist church and went to the same church from birth to 18 years old. My Grandfather was a trustee, mother was church secretary 25, grandmother was a mother of the church and taught Sunday school classes, my grandmother headed the missionary work, I played piano for two of the choirs when I was a teenager. When I was coming out as gay in High School, when I would go to church there were sermons about homosexuality being sinful and bad. I felt the shame around my sexuality hearing the messages. I love my family very much and we’ve come such a long way since those days. But, back in those days it was not easy. I knew other kids who had really bad situations at home, so relative to them I was privileged.
AmNews: Who has inspired you in this business and encouraged you to create and share your voice?
MRJ: Someone who I feel I owe such a debt of gratitude, playwright, composer and lyric, Kirsten Childs, he wrote a musical called “The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin” we studied the show and I went to archives of it at Lincoln Center and I watched it and fell in love with it. It was what I wanted to be doing and it gave me a burst of confidence. Seeing other Black musical theater artists tell their story was encouraging to me and Passing Strange also gave me a boost of confidence.