[00:00:00] Michael R. Jackson: I'm just saying that a lot of people have been calling for safety in safe spaces and that on one level it's like, oh, I'm in a safe space. But safe also has another connotation of being not willing to take risks or to push a boundary. It has actually been like very challenging to me personally because I obviously wrote this musical that is a bold, bright, subversive thing, and coming out of that I'm sort of like, oh, am I allowed to like do that even more? Or again? What am I allowed to do?
[00:00:38] Helga: Safety cuts both ways. It can be a place that is respectful, that honors differences, that allows us to be who we are. It can also mean a fear of risk and unwillingness to confront something uncomfortable, but essential in ourselves and in our communities. I'm Helga Davis and welcome to the fifth season of Helga, a show of conversations with extraordinary people from WNYC studios and the Brown Arts Institute at Brown University.
One other thing this show is about this season especially, is my home Harlem. There's so much degradation here right now, but there is also love and hope, and I don't need to go anywhere else in the United States to feel it. I can look outside my window and see the very American situation we all find ourselves in.
It's all right here. My guest today is the Pulitzer Prize winning author of A Strange Loop, a play into which he poured almost 20 years of self investigation. He's fresh from a Tony Award for Best New Musical, as well as being named one of Time Magazine's 100 Most Influential People of 2022. In our conversation, we talk about what it means to be fearless as an artist, the lies of our, if this, then that culture and how the illusion of identity is a powerful means to foster understanding. We even sing some of our favorite hymns to each other. I hope you enjoy.
And so I was very happy that you said yes and that you agree to come and say hello, and I'm, I'm wondering what. Has happened to you as a result of what has happened to you?
[00:02:41] Michael R. Jackson: I have a lot more eyes on me. Which is interesting. I moved to a new apartment, after living with roommates for 15 years. I am very busy all the time. I'm not, not well I, so I'm new to a new apartment that I was, I'm almost never in like anymore. A lot of traveling, a lot of writing, working on other projects, both in the TV film space as well as other theater projects. So I sort of just have been kind of hitting, hitting the road.
What is it? Putting my nose to the grindstone.
[00:03:27] Helga: Your nose to the grindstone. And the eyes on you feels what?
[00:03:32] Michael R. Jackson: It feels a little strange because, and this sort of goes, I think, a little bit in line with what A Strange Loop is, is that I feel that I haven't changed, like I still feel the same as I was. So then when people are looking at me or they want to know my opinion on something or they stop me on the street or whatever it is, I'm always a little mystified. I'm, it's, it's always very nice cause everyone's like very friendly but I'm always a little bit mystified by it because I haven't changed. I think it's because I've only ever been interested in artistic sort of excellence and achievement. And so it's not like I, there was any part of me that ever wanted to like to be a star or anything of that nature. And so I don't get like a guilt of energy in that way that somebody who might be more fame focused would, I think. I have to kind of rebalance myself when those moments come.
[00:04:35] Helga: And I was curious to know whether or not your friendships have changed. So maybe your ride and dies are exactly the same and maybe you got a call from a cousin whom you barely know who has a great idea for a business.
[00:04:50] Michael R. Jackson: So I definitely have a cousin who doesn't have a great idea for a business, but who has suddenly decided, and this is a third cousin, who has suddenly decided that we are just like we are so connected. And, and this relative goes online frequently whenever anything is posted about the show and is like in the comments being like, Hey, Cuzo, oh my God. Like is always doing this big production that I find to be very strange given that we don't really know each other.
I mean, we've met. I know who this relative is in a general sense, but we're not close on, like, on any level. I have a lot of relatives on both sides of my family. Cousins on both sides of my family, who I am much closer to, even though I don't see them often. But who I would say like, oh, that's my cousin's so-and-so, that's my cousin's, so-and-so I, there's some sort of relationship here.
This relative, there's no relationship at all. And yet to hear them tell it on social media, that's like, oh my God. The family. The family. The family. But that's in the grand scheme thing, it's very minor. It doesn't mean anything. Um, have my friendships changed? Um, I would say that my core friendships are the same.
But I would, I would also say that I have noticed that in some relationships in my life with people who I would say that I, maybe prior to the pandemic felt closer to, there is now a little bit of distance, but some of that distance is not necessarily only, or even primarily, about the show itself in my estimation. I think that when the pandemic came and all that followed—someone should write a book called The Pandemic and All That Followed—I do think that there was a big shift in the earth and countries and relationships and communities that foundations were rocked. And I definitely noticed that also I had to really take stock of myself in light of like such a catastrophic event that I learned things about myself that I didn't realize until that happened. And that I think then shifted my perspective on some of the relationships in my life, even amongst people who I love very dearly.
And that's been like a very strange thing to navigate because all of that happened without any conversation about it. Because how do you really talk about that, that like, oh, there's been this big world changing event. We all dealt with it the way that we dealt with it, but in dealing with it the way that we dealt with it, we learned about ourselves. And in learning about ourselves, we learned, we, we looked at each other differently
[00:07:59] Helga: What'd you learn about yourself? What are some of those things?
[00:08:03] Michael R. Jackson: One thing that I learned about myself was that my instinct to, to self-preservation, to focus on only me. I mean, not meaning not to focus on anyone else, but to primarily focus on my own needs was greater than I thought.
I thought prior to the pandemic that I was much more of a collectivist. That I was someone who was like there to be a part of group dynamics and I'm gonna go with the group or whatever. And once the pandemic hit, I was like, I need to make sure that I have food in my belly, have a roof over my head. I have access to healthcare and that I have relative financial stability and that everything must serve that. It doesn't mean that I won't—I definitely, I helped my parents out with some stuff financially, my brother, but suddenly my wagons were like much more tightly circled around my own needs and my own self preservation.
And I just, and I didn't realize that, that in a way, you know, I became sort of small “l” more small “l” libertarian in my thought process than I thought in the wake of everything. And that was not something that I ever would've thought prior to that, to the pandemic.
[00:09:23] Helga: And what about the relationships that did change? Do you feel that they're changed forever? Is there an opportunity or might there be an opportunity not to go back? Because this thing of going back and normalizing the behavior, the ways of thinking, the politics, the everything of before and using this word “normal” all the time to describe that, I think is really misplaced. And so I'm wondering if you see or feel that there might be an opportunity one day to return to those relationships where you are now?
[00:10:15] Michael R. Jackson: I don't know the answer to that. And I don't know the answer to that because I hear everything that you're saying about not returning to quote unquote normal.
But I also feel, and I was just talking to another artist about this the other day, that weirdly, even, even though so much has changed, at the same time, I feel in the world a kind of regression to be honest with you. And so like there's a way in which things have changed, but there's a way in which they've, it's, it's like through the looking glass in that like now the climate of now and of the last couple of years, in my view, it's like we might as well be in like the 1980s again, or the 1950s.
[00:11:08] Helga: In what ways?
[00:11:09] Michael R. Jackson: In the sense of, there's a, in my view, there's a kind of, um, cultural conservatism that I feel that I observe coming from all sides, of course. But like I feel it coming from folks who I used to think were maybe more open-minded. And I think that's been part of the difficulty that I had been feeling because my, my inclination is to speak and to say what I think and what's on my mind and to express and to be an artist and to sort of push boundaries and to challenge and to provoke and all of those things. And yet I also feel, in this moment, that I must be careful about everything that I say and write and feel and think.
And that's a hard thing to do as an artist because your impulse is to say more, to go right. Not to say less. Yeah. And it isn't that I don't think that there's value in being thoughtful about what you say, and I certainly am an artist who tries to be very thoughtful about what he says, but it's, it's challenging I think to do that in a climate that's so hyper focused on “you may not say these words or these words are harmful, or these words are violent” or whatever. And this constant redefining of language in a sense, is like going back to normal, if we're not going back to a time it seems when you wouldn't be that conservative about what people can say and think and feel or whatever.
But at the same time, it's now a new thing of, well, we must be very careful about what we say. Which can be good in one sense because it means a lot of people who have been sort of ignored, marginalized, um, not included or whatever. There's now a push to care for them in all ways, including the language that we use.
But I just see there's like a double edged sword to that, that I just—from my little corner of the world that has been challenging.
[00:13:21] Helga: So then what do you think the future of the LGBTQ+ communities, uh, in the theater could be? Can be?
[00:13:35] Michael R. Jackson: Um, it's hard to say because even that, like, that whole community is viewed in, in one cluster, it makes it, I think, difficult to parse out what stories, which artists, what producers can even sort of advance a vision.
Because if the vision has to always be a monolithic one or if not monolithic, then one that fits within a certain prescribed, socially accepted, sort of kid tested and mother approved boundary. That one can, may never step out of on multiple fronts, then the future to me seems rather bland and dull and safe, and which, you know, that's a double stink. I'm just saying a lot of people have been calling for safety in safe spaces, and that on one level it's like, oh, I'm in a safe space. But safe also has another connotation of being not willing to take risks or to push a boundary.
And so I, I don't know what the future holds because. So many people are either self-policing or, or policing others even as they call to defund the police. I mean, not, I'm talking like metaphorically. And so there's a little bit of a, I feel a contradiction sort of happening within LGBTQ world.
Also because class plays like such a huge part in even how a lot of these LGBTQ issues are discussed or, um, considered. And so again, I feel a little like there's a, there's like a conservatism around all of it. And I, when I say conservative, I mean like a small “c” conservative. And I, it has actually been like very challenging to me personally because I obviously wrote this musical that is a bold, bright, subversive thing, and coming out of that, I'm sort of like, ph, am I allowed to like do that even more? Or again? What am I allowed to do? And I never really felt before, like I wasn't allowed to do something. And some of that may be, you know, my own paranoia, but that's how I feel.
[00:16:18] Helga: You know, the other day I heard this advertisement for another revival of A Raisin in the Sun.
And it was promoted as a fresh look at a classic that's just as relevant today. And I'm wondering what you think about this propensity to use the past as the vehicle for amplifying issues of today, rather than promoting new playwrights to do this work and give, give us an opportunity to also look forward through a different lens
[00:17:02] Michael R. Jackson: So my observation is that there's been a tendency that I've noticed in the last couple of years, um, to try to use the past to talk about the present, which is known as presentism. And I think that this tendency toward presentism is actually a disservice to both the past and the present. Because what it does is that it's—and there's a kind of narcissism that's wrapped up inside of it, because what it's saying implicitly is that everything that happened in the past is just like right now and like what people in, you know, the 1950s we're dealing with, we're still dealing with. That you could literally just, even on paper, go, that's not true. And yet somehow, a lot of artists find like they, they find some sort of self affirmation in casting themselves as the same kind of victims that many of our ancestors were when again, all you have to do is just look at one's circumstances. It doesn't mean that like today, that one doesn't have problems. But I always find it curious, like, why aren't people talking about what problems you have today? And I think part of the reason why we're not is because that would, for many people, involve a kind of self-reflection and introspection that's actually quite uncomfortable because then they would have to realize the ways in which they might be complicit in a certain class. Exclusion of others, it might mean that they have a much more mundane existence than they thought. You know, there's like a lot of implications to looking in the mirror. And so I think that for many artists it's easier to then put on the past as a kind of cosplay to then sort of use, uh, and then link that to whatever's happening today as a way to escape actually dealing with themselves.
And, and I would say like there are a lot of new playwrights out there, but many of them are also engaging in the same kind of presentism and sort of self delusion. Um, and I don't say that to seem like I'm like some snotty, you know, therapist, you know. Everybody has to like, deal with themself. But that's—but it's—the only reason why I'm saying that is because in my particular, my particular musical that I wrote was one in which I had to spend nearly 20 years investigating myself and what I was up to. And even in doing that, there's still things that I didn't get to. So like, I could only imagine what it would be like to decide I'm gonna like, do an adaptation of something from the past or whatever, or, or adapt something. Like, I often feel like, forgive me for going on so long about this, but like, I've been thinking so much about the battles that have been happening, you know, around trying to account for the correct history of America or Black America or whatever communities there are.
And it's really struck me that the way I hear people talk about this is as if history is one thing at any moment and not millions and millions of people's perspectives and things that happened. There's so much, you know, that we don't, that I don't know. And it's so funny because I went to a predominantly black primary school, high school. Like I grew up in like a black city, a black family, black church, black everything. And I can testify to you that like the history I was taught in school was terrible. My teachers were no different than anywhere else, just trying to get me to pass a test and like check things off a box. I mean, that's, that's just being like very, for real.
I didn't get an extra special over-immersion in white history growing up. I guarantee you, like I could, there are things I'm deeply ashamed that I can't tell you about American history, let alone African American history. And so like this idea that like, oh, if you just read this book or this New York Times series or, or all these books, or you take all these classes that you're gonna know. You're not gonna know because history is fluid.
Certainly there are many markers that we can track that will tell us about the history of American imperialism and, and, and racism and, and so on and so forth, and all the people who were sort of, um, abused and killed and whatever as a result of that. But even within that, there's still many micro-histories.
[00:21:59] Helga: But Michael, even back to your point, we can't talk about that. We can no longer talk about that. We no longer have the wherewithal, the desire, the curiosity, the expansion of thought to take any of this on.
[00:22:22] Michael R. Jackson: I agree. And—
[00:22:24] Helga: —so you take the books off the shelves and somehow that's an answer.
[00:22:27] Michael R. Jackson: Right. And it's also so baffling to me because we talk so much about history, but also what about math? What about economics or physics or science or anything? Like all of those things have a history as well. And like I don't see people obsessing so much on like, the children don't have the right math. The children don't have the right, you know, science to them.
You know? And I don't know totally what to make of that because there is something to, like, whoever writes the history book is in charge. That's real. But I think a lot about my history with math. I was like a terrible, terrible math student as a kid. I just didn't understand it. Especially when it started to get to more complex math like algebra and geometry and whatever, because I didn't understand how it had any application in my own life as a kid. And also because nobody, none of my teachers were really trying to help me understand that it was about solving for like abstractions and about seeing, and that there was a philosophy kind of behind it. And that geometry was about shapes of rooms and the physical space that we enter into and how that works. It was all about like, you have to learn this thing and then you have to pass a test. And that same thing happened with history. It wasn't like I learned about, you know, what caused World War I—even if like, I acknowledge, for example, racist policies within that, but like what actually caused it?
And, and the thing that makes me think about that a lot is that there's this emphasis on the right history, the right history, the right history. But then I go, Well, what about current events? How do pe—how do young people process current events? Like if, if I'm talking about the history of let's say redlining, that's one thing.
But then how do I talk to, to young people about the Israel Palestine conflict or about Kosovo or about the Oklahoma bomber or about the triangle shirt waste factory, you know, fire. How do we look at those things and why do we look at those things? Is there an agenda behind it or should we just know what happened and be able to sort of coldly talk about, just on a basic level, what actually happened. And, certainly we can analyze the why of it, but then even in the analyzing of the why of it, the people who were trying to push us to do that are often pushing a very specific agenda that they think is best for all and I guess I'm questioning at this point, is there really a one size fits all application of teaching history and people understanding history? Cuz it seems to me like there isn't, cuz you can always look at it from like another perspective, right?
[00:25:31] Helga: Right, but if there isn't curiosity, there isn't real conversation about it, there isn't, now almost, permission.
[00:25:47] Michael R. Jackson: Yeah. I mean, I think that that gets to the sort of conservatism that I feel, that I feel. And like it's a conservatism that I don't think, that, I think some people don't think is conservative and it's, it's a real head trip to be honest, because how do you actually progress into that curiosity, especially if people have agendas and other, and, but then there was this other people who just literally don't know what happened. There are many people who don't know anything about the neighborhoods beyond them or around them. As I mentioned, I grew up in a black city, in a black family, black churches, black schools, black social groups, black everything. I actually took for granted, until I left Detroit, a lot because I just assumed that everything was this way. I remember coming to New York and like, oh wait, people are West Indian, people are Trinidadian. No we are black. And you better know the difference. You better, you better know the difference.
That was a real thing that I was just like, what do you mean where I'm from? You are black or you are white or you are other and you are mostly black. And that meant a very specific thing when I was growing up, cuz I lived in that bubble. And I had like friends growing up who were like Jewish or whatever, but like I just thought, oh, and then there was like a small little subset of people who were Jewish.
I had no sense that there was a global expansiveness of who people were and where they were from and what it meant or anything. And nobody really even taught me that either because where I was, we were majority black. And so, why would I need to think about anybody else other than us?
[00:27:37] Helga: One part that that was very different for me is that last summer I went to Senegal. And for almost 10 days I only saw black people. In the pharmacy, in the supermarket, in any market, in the doctor's office, you know, cuz you have to go get swabbed before they let you back on the plane and let you out of the country, in the air, in every possible situation you can imagine and that are part of, of a society. And there's something about that imprinting that I will never, ever, ever forget.
[00:28:26] Michael R. Jackson: And can I ask you a question about that? When you were there, did you, did you feel any distinction because you're American?
[00:28:34] Helga: Absolutely. And at the same time, I was willing to take on those distinctions and not be angry about them because here was a place where I saw women who had my body type, women who had my hair. And like I said, this thing of just seeing black people all the time, everywhere. I could forgive everything because I had these, these other things that I didn't even know were important until I got there.
And then of course, you go to Gorée and there are, there are slave tchotchkes on the side of the road. Oh, it was such a mess. And the people who greet you at the boat who say, come to my shop. What's your name? Come to my shop. And that, that's not about friendship at all. That is transactional.
And then you don't go to anyone's shop. And we had people tell us how we were taking food out of their mouths because we wouldn't buy anything. And so it was both things, or the person at the airport who—I didn't know the address of where we were staying, and he looked at me and he said, well, call your girlfriend. Ask how, where you are going. I was like, what does that even mean? What girlfriend? And, and, and, what's, what's a girlfriend? My friend over there? Is that my girlfriend? You think I'm, I'm lesbian, so I should call my partner or my girlfriend here? Who were you talking about? And my other friends just laughed at me and said why didn't you put $20 or $30 on the inside of your passport and hand him your passport that way? I said, because I didn't know. Why didn't you tell me ?
[00:30:51] Michael R. Jackson: Yeah. Lots of sort of cultural differences and—
[00:30:54] Helga: —and yes, in that moment, I was American, and that was equally strange. I didn't know what to do with that. And they know what happens to us, with us here. And as my friend Colleen pointed out, they sold us here, so why all the attitude now?
[00:31:23] Michael R. Jackson: I mean that's, uh, a question for the ages. And that to me also speaks on some level to a lot of the sort of class divisions that we don't talk a lot about that I think become even more complicated in a place like Senegal, I would imagine. And certainly other parts of Africa I've seen, I've heard friends talk about going there and like realizing that, that their friend who's here, who's African, is like a millionaire when they, when they go in there, they're like, oh, you have like armed guards guarding like your big mansion in like, you know, in Nigeria somewhere. So, and that's, and that's a really interesting, you know, experience.
[00:32:03] Helga: So if one of the functions of art is to amplify the issues of our time, um, I think Rent did this, Angels in America did this, the Colored Museum did this and even the Lion King. What are those issues for you and what questions in your work are you looking to answer?
[00:32:33] Michael R. Jackson: Well, I think my work in A Strange Loop specifically is really sort of amplifying the question of who is I? What is I, um, and who is I and what is I, uh, refracted through someone who, as he starts to show off, is black and or gay and or queer, cisgender male able bodied, politically homeless, normie, you know, uh, descendant of slaves, but thinks he's probably a verse bottom, but not totally sure of that.
Like, there's all these sort of hyphenations of identity that all sort of are part of this concept of “I” that's, uh, from the inside that “I” comes from the inside. It's a pro—you know, pronouns are about how you feel on the inside. And, and so I think my show is really just posing this question of like, what does it mean to be that body traveling through space?
Which I think is the question of any play. What does it mean? What are the consequences of these bodies traveling through space together, separately, what, you know, what comes of that. And so I wouldn't say that I seek to answer any questions. I really seek to ask questions for people to think about because everybody is gonna have a different perspective on what it all means and what it means to them. You know, one of the things that I like about A Strange Loop is that it ends with, you know, the central character Usher, sort of arriving at this place that “I” is just an illusion. And you also get the sense that like there's a certain kind of resolution that he comes to at the end, and yet it's not resolved at all because that's what real life is like.
And that's what I really sort of aim to, to put on stage is like a question of like, what is real life? And like, how do we sort of identify the questions that we have in real life and share them with others because nobody knows what anybody else is going through and that has been like this really beautiful experience of A Strange Loop specifically because there have been people who have come through the show, who are told, who had, just for whatever, decided in their mind that the show is not quote unquote for them, but then they see this story and there's something in it that, that resonates, that feels like their life, even though the character doesn't look like them or the character does look like them on some level and there's something that maybe they haven't shared with their neighbor or their social group or their family or whatever that resonates, you know? And so I just am really into promoting the exchange of energy and the idea that we can learn from people who are not like us, and we can learn from people who like actually aren't us because they're actors on a stage playing characters. You know? That for me is like a really powerful elixir.
[00:35:45] Helga: But then what is this “I” is an illusion? And you can't be all of the things that you described and believe that “I” is an illusion.
[00:35:54] Michael R. Jackson: But I think, but I think that that's the strange loop of it because just because something that's an illusion doesn't mean it doesn't exist.
When a magician does a trick, my perception is real. Like I see what I see. But it doesn't materially exist, but it exists in my mind, which is where the “I” is. And so then what it ends up being about what “I” is really about is a matter of perception and that your, your perceptions are constantly changing or they go through stages of changing. That certainly was true for me. My “I” changed during over the last couple of years because my perceptions were changing.
[00:36:33] Helga: You're listening to Helga. We'll rejoin the conversation in just a moment. Thanks for being here.
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[00:37:12] Helga: And now let's rejoin my conversation with playwright Michael R. Jackson. Did you discover these things in therapy and, and what was it, or is it like for you to have been or to be in therapy?
[00:37:34] Michael R. Jackson: Um, I did discover some things in therapy. Therapy was like an important piece of the journey of A Strange Loop. Um, at a certain point it helped me actually sort of identify dramatically what Usher's problem was and how to sort of organize some plot things around it. Um, I'm not in therapy currently, though I desperately need one. So if you or anyone listening to this podcast are like, oh my God, I have a therapist for you, or I am a therapist for you, please find me. I need your help. I'm losing my mind on a number of fronts that we can either get into or I can get into on the couch when I find you. Um, I'm a big believer in therapy in talking to people about your problems. It's been—I just like had a long talk with my agent this morning that was basically a therapy session and I felt so good when I came out of it cuz he had like a perspective that helped me put some of the stuff I've been dealing with in perspective. But yes therapy was a part of, uh, me coming to some of these conclusions.
[00:38:41] Helga: And did you do talk therapy or did you do any body based therapy?
[00:38:44] Michael R. Jackson: I did a therapy that was called Gestalt Therapy, which there was—talk therapy was part of that, but we did this thing called tapping where you tap on different chakras on your body and you sort of identify an issue. And I had to keep saying, even though I, I can't remember exactly what it's now, even though I, I'm gonna make something up.
Even though I'm mad at my mother, I completely and totally accept myself. Even though… and it, it helps you get into your body of like, what are your, your body's physical responses to emotional stress. And once you're able to put together the, like, emotion with like, oh, I like, the thing that we would notice—that I noticed when I was in therapy during gestalt therapy was that like when I got sort of anxious or sad or, or worried about certain issues, my stomach would like get tight. And I had to like identify that so that then in the moment my therapist goes, what's happening in your body? Like, he would constantly interrupt me to go, what's hap—how when he could see me getting, like, emotional about something and he would bring it back to my body. And somehow putting those two things together started to help me over time to be aware of how I, um, reacted to certain situations and how to sort of move through them without being in this sort of fight or flight place. It's why I know I need therapy again, because I, there's been some stressful stuff that's happened recently that I have not reacted—like I'd like gone into a fight or flight kind of place. Um, and I need, I think I actually need to get back in touch with, uh, my body.
[00:40:34] Helga: I think a lot about the body because I'm looking at bodies around me. My mom is 94 and I'm looking at her body. And if I see her sitting in a chair or sitting up in bed, there's a part of me that goes, who is that? And, but then if I look into her eyes and she begins to talk to me, the person I have known is still there, just not in the body.
[00:41:14] Michael R. Jackson: Yeah no, I definitely had that experience with my mother, um, especially cuz she's had like a lot of health challenges over the last couple of years and, and is in a way, like, is a, is different quote unquote different than what I remember her from like 15 years ago.
I mean obviously she's gotten older but, but when she does talk to me, I'm like, oh, that's my mom. And it's like very clear. Same thing with my dad, that's my dad. Um, it's very interesting how that works.
[00:41:46] Helga: And what about your own body? When I, when I think about and look at my body, um, because I've done so many things that feel super athletic and, uh, endurance based. The therapy that I did is called core energetics, and like you hit stuff and you kick and you yell, and so I don't know that might be, that might be good for you.
[00:42:14] Michael R. Jackson: That might be good for me to be honest. Can you do that with a person or they direct you?
[00:42:21] Helga: You do it with a person or with a group. The thing that's fascinating about doing it with the group is that everyone in your life is in the group. Your mother is in the group, your father is in the group. The person who kicked you in third grade is in the group. Everyone is in the group. And so you get to interact with the energy that those entities hold and move the, the, the energy from where you've been with them to some place that is genuinely new. You. And you do it through the body.
[00:43:00] Michael R. Jackson: Well, I've always had, uh, I mean I don't have body dysmorphia, but I've always had like sort of self-image issues around my body, particularly, you know, coming out as gay, entering into like gay male spaces where so much about bodies and sexuality and, and value comes into play and that has historically been a struggle for me, though, I will say some of the therapy and getting older has put some of it into relief though I did find myself on Fire Island recently and was challenged, you know?
[00:43:39] Helga: In what way?
[00:43:40] Michael R. Jackson: In that like, you're just looking around at all these people with their shirts off and everybody's like a certain kind of fit where it seems they are—and it was also like predominantly white though not all white. Um, and like, it definitely triggered, um, a kind of, uh, body memory in me that would feel shame because I don't look like them or whatever. But luckily I'm also, again, because I think I've done therapy and I've gotten older, I'm able to remind myself that like, I don't mind the body that I'm in and that my body has its own space that it occupies in the world that is valuable and that I actually don't wanna attach any sort of external, uh, validation to that.
And so a lot of what I've been doing in general is I've been working with a nutrition coach because, like, I don't want to become diabetic because I have a history of these things in my family and that I'd wanna feel good in my body in general. So I'd been working on my food, I'd been taking long walks, which I just like to do. And that helped me feel, sort of sane and sort of whole. And that gives me a certain kind of energy and that's like enough, there's nothing about what I'm doing that's really along the lines of trying to fit into a social scene or a class. And that's something that is different than like, I went on a weight loss journey many years ago. I was doing Weight Watchers and at work and I was, and I lost like 90 pounds or like 80 pounds, something like that. And I was like, ooh, I'm suddenly like so thin and I'm whatever. But even at that time, it still was all with the hopes that I would be validated by someone externally.
And I look back on pictures of me at that time and I was like, oh, I hate the way that I look. And I do because I can see actually how unhappy I really was inside of, even though I like looked good. And so, uh, now I'm on a different journey. I'm older and I'm on a different journey with my body, like trying to be healthy and happy.
[00:46:07] Helga: How much of this do you think is really American?
[00:46:13] Michael R. Jackson: Oh, I mean, it's so much of it's American because we have these ideas constantly being sold to us of like, of if this, then that, if this, then that. If you just do that, then you'll be this. Um, Joni Mitchell has this lyric. “If I had this house car bottle jar, your lovers would look like movie stars, movie stars, movie stars, movie stars.” It's one of my favorite lyrics and I—sometimes I'll substitute if I had that, you know, I just substitute body instead of bottles. Like, if you just, if you just had, and you just did the this and you did the that and you did the this, then you'll, then, then true love will come to you.
Then everybody will like, you and everyone won't want to have sex with you and everyone will bring you burnt offerings and frankincense and myrrh, because you are, you know, you're in the right BMI index. And it's just such a lie. And it's a very American lie for sure.
[00:47:06] Helga: I was in France once and we were on the beach and every person had their shirt off. Grandmas. Babies. Whoever. Everybody had their shirt off. And I remember when our little group decided we were gonna do it too. And we were terrified that people would be looking at us. Well first maybe looking at us because we were black and we were the only black people on the beach. And then that we were suddenly gonna be looking at each other because even though some of us had known one another for a long time, we had never seen one another with our shirts off. Right. And then we just kind of counted the three and did it. And it was so liberating.
[00:47:59] Michael R. Jackson: Yeah, I can imagine.
[00:48:02] Helga: And then we began speaking about it, about how wonderful it was gonna be to be the same color all over our torsos. And that we could do it too.
[00:48:14] Michael R. Jackson: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. Yeah.
[00:48:19] Helga: I wanna talk to you also about church. What, what denomination did you grow up in?
[00:48:27] Michael R. Jackson: Baptist.
[00:48:29] Helga: Did you sing in the choir or play an instrument in church?
[00:48:32] Michael R. Jackson: I, when I was a little kid, I sang in a choir. And then as I got older, I actually played for two of the choirs. I played for children's choir and for the inspirational choir, which was like older folks in the church.
[00:48:46] Helga: Did you get saved?
[00:48:47] Michael R. Jackson: Yeah. I mean, I joined this church. I was baptized and all of that when I was seven or eight. Six. Six, seven or eight. Somewhere around there. Well let’s see. I think that's, or no, maybe I was, you know, actually maybe I was a little bit older. I might have been like nine or ten maybe. I, but I was young. I was a good kid.
[00:49:06] Helga: Wow. I think that's too young. It's before you can really make any choices. No?
[00:49:14] Michael R. Jackson: Well, I mean, but I also did make the choice. That's something that speaks to the power of religion and cults, and I'm not saying my church was a cult. But like, I don't re—I couldn't tell you what my frame of mind was when they opened the doors of a church and I went to join. But somehow I felt like at that age that it was important for me to officially become a member of this body that I was going to every single Sunday and sometimes multiple days a week because of Bible studies and, and all this sort of stuff.
I was like very raised in the church. And so the more I think you're immersed in something like that, especially if you're a young child, you're—it's very impressionable. Like why wouldn't you do it? Because also when you also, when you see kids getting baptized, you feel like, I want to be a part of that. I'm, I'm missing out on something.
[00:50:10] Helga: You felt like that?
[00:50:11] Michael R. Jackson: Yes.
[00:50:12] Helga: You know how I felt? First of all, I couldn't, I couldn't say the thing. I couldn't say that I was born a sinner. That made me so angry cuz I felt like I just got here. So how is it, how is it that I got this thing. And I'm trying so hard and I'm obedient. I am respectful. I'm smart. I go to school. I do well, and I, I'm like, I feel like I'm doing all the things. So how come in this family, that is the family I know that's just outside the family I grew up with, that all of a sudden it felt like everything about me was bad. And so then, even though I saw my brothers, my church friends, and like you, I, I was there Monday. Sorry, Sunday, Friday through Sunday, I was there. Some study, some food thing, some something, and I watched my people get baptized. I watched my people go up to the altar and, and confess and I could not do it.
[00:51:44] Michael R. Jackson: And what denomination were you raised in?
[00:51:47] Helga: Pentecostal.
[00:51:48] Michael R. Jackson: Pentecostal. So that was even more intense than Baptists. So like, I guess for me, because the church that I grew up in was kind of an extension of like the neighborhood. And so I didn't even really, really understand what it was that I was signing up for. So like if someone said, you know, oh, are you a sinner? I would just—me saying yes would not send me off, into an existential crisis.
Now when I, how, however, when I got older, especially when I was starting to come out, that's where I ran into problems. Because suddenly the messaging around sexuality and sin and the body and all that stuff, then it began to be an actual conflict with what I was feeling inside in a way that it wasn't when I was a small child. Because when I was a small child, it just felt like I'm being accepted by a group and then I get to be sort of focused upon when I'm being baptized and like my parents are proud of me and everyone's proud of me and excited and happy, and oh my goodness, you're, you know, you're saved and all this stuff and, and that was it. And then like, that was the end of that Sunday. And then the next Sunday it was somebody else's turn.
[00:53:03] Helga: Okay, so then you get older and you, you, you understand the consequence or you understand what it is that you've been born into, what you've accepted, what you've been a part of, and, and then what?
[00:53:21] Michael R. Jackson: Well then I sort of started to, to drift away from it, particularly when I was 18 and then I went away to college and I didn't have to go to church every Sunday or be in community with all those folks, or go to Sunday school or go to Bible study or play for the choir, any of that stuff. But in that interim period, when I sort of recognized that there was something that wasn't resonating with me, it was difficult because I had to still go and participate and like, and, and, and, and kind of be an imposter for a couple of years and even in the years after, like, I would come home and people would, and when my mother would call me and be like, do you have a church home in New York? And all this stuff. And like, I would shift and lie or have truth or like—cause maybe I had visited a church, but it wasn't like I was gonna join. But there was like all kinds of reasons for why I wasn't, because I had this sort of conflict with the, the, the literally the very notion that I was inherently sinful and that my sin was like about my flesh. And also that frequently issues of sexuality, which tended to mostly be plagued onto gay people. Although it could happen with heterosexual people too, especially women. But it would be treated differently. Because like in my church, so many girls would end up pregnant outside of marriage. And much we made of that. But like once that baby got there, everybody was so excited cuz it's a baby. And, and and the sort of sinfulness of it was like washed away in a way that it would not be if you were gay.
[00:55:06] Helga: But it's also sinful for the women and not for the men who impregnated them.
[00:55:11] Michael R. Jackson: That’s correct. Well, cuz also in all of those scenarios, the men who impregnated them were not there. If the men who went and pregnant them had been in the church, I definitely think it would've been a problem for both of them.
But then, but again, once that baby got there, suddenly it's like, you know, Jesus and Mary are not—Mary's pregnant and with Joseph, but then once Jesus gets there, everybody's happy. But like in, in my church, I don't think there was ever a case when a guy in the church got a girl in the church pregnant like that never happened.
[00:55:53] Helga: And so you're in this conflict. I know the way that I resolved my conflict was that I started worshiping at the Paradise Garage on King Street.
[00:56:03] Michael R. Jackson: Oh yeah. I've always heard so many stories about this place.
[00:56:06] Helga: And I remember telling my mother that I was going to this place and sometimes people took drugs and sometimes they were having sex and that I wasn't doing any of that. I was going to dance. And for her, as long as I came home on Saturday and cleaned the bathroom in time for church the next day, then she was sort of okay with it, I think, because I'd just been honest about it. And then I stopped going to church and I remember, you know, seeing some of those people after, when my mom was 80, the thing that she wanted was for all of us to go to church together and so I went and I saw people there I hadn't seen since we were 10 or 11.
And, you know, they looked at me and it was like, oh, so what are you doing? Because now I was out in the world and probably, but not certainly, sinning, living, living in sin with someone or in whatever I was doing. But at the same time, we recognized each other as family because that's what we had been.
[00:57:39] Michael R. Jackson: Yeah. I mean, there are people who go to the church I was raised in, who I, when I go home and visit my parents, who will come to our house, who, like, I have such a deep love for them because they're such an important part of my growing up and like of the community that I was raised in and I'm so grateful, even though I had like complicated feelings around the institution, the people, like I loved them and they were, they're, they just mean a lot to me
[00:58:19] Helga: And I still love them.
[00:58:20] Michael R. Jackson: Yeah. You know, like I had this experience. So when I was in, when I was 17, I went to Israel for an exchange program. And so of course that was the Holy Land. And so everyone in church like, bring me some dirt, bring me a rock, bring me something from the Holy Land.
So like, I went to Israel and I like literally like picking up just rocks out of the sand and putting—and I brought all these rocks and dirt and things back, and I gave one to this one woman who I went to church with, who every single time that I see her when I go home reminds me that I still have that rock that you gave me. I sleep with it under my pillow every night. Because that rock is Jesus. That rock is Jesus. And I love her for that. Like, that's, that's, that's so real. And that's so, and, and she means it, like, it means so much to her and like, I love that. And it's just, I find that to be there special and, and it's stuff like that, I feel that keeps me grounded.
Cause I came from that. I came from real people. I live in New York City around a lot of not real people. But like, I'm from like very real people who have rocks that they sleep with under their pillows that I gave when I was 17.
[00:59:37] Helga: What are your hymns? What, what hymns, what songs do you like from the church?
[00:59:43] Michael R. Jackson: I really like, um, When we all get to heaven what a day are rejoicing.
[Both Michael and Helga sing together]
[01:00:10] Helga: No, Michael, When we all see Jesus, we will sing and shout the victory.
[01:00:18] Michael R. Jackson: That's right. Well, I haven't sung it for a while. Oh yeah.
[01:00:20] Helga: But…
[01:00:22] Michael R. Jackson: Well I love that one. And, um, I love, um, uh, I was just singing it this morning.
[Michael and Helga sing together again]
[01:00:48] Helga: I have no idea what the words—
[01:00:50] Michael R. Jackson: But like, there's so many. That was always my favorite part of, one of my favorite, it wasn't a hymn, but it was a song that, um, uh, Brother Maurice Collier used to sing and sometimes Sister O'Brien would sing it with him. You gave me the strength to make it to another day. All the strength I had from yesterday is all gone. Oh, all the pressures of yesterday took all of my strength away you—or it’s either you or he—you, he, you renewed my strength and now I can journey on. I just love I to this day, that song like still does something to me, both because of the memory of it, cuz Maurice Collier. He passed away, but he was in our church. Like he had that kind of like Peabo Bryson. Kind of Jeffrey Osborne. Or Luther Vandross kind of voice. And any time that I knew he was gonna get up and sing like Your Grace and mercy, brought me through, I'm living this moment because of you. I want to thank you and praise you too. Your grace and mercy—that was his drawl—brought me through. Every time he would sing I would perk up. I loved hearing him sing so much. It gave me a lot of energy.
[01:02:26] Helga: Hmm. Have thine own way is my one.
[01:02:30] Michael R. Jackson: Oh yeah. I don't, I don't think I know that one.
[01:03:14] Helga: And I love, I love, I love, I love, Okay. All right. We did that.
[01:03:23] Michael R. Jackson: We did that.
[01:03:27] Helga: One of the things that you talk about a lot is living fearlessly. And I wanna know what you do in your daily practice that, like what's your journey in that? What do you do to get to that?
[01:03:49] Michael R. Jackson: Well, I mean, I think, you know, I, it's, it's tricky cuz you, you catch me at a moment in time where I'm feeling not fearless. But in my art making, I'm certainly fearless. Um, but the line between art and life is a thin one for me. And so I think this sort of speaks to a little bit of what I was saying earlier of why I'm having this sort of conflict is that my impulse in making art is to really put it all out there and to just go sort of balls to the walls with it. But suddenly in this climate, I feel fearful of doing that. And so that's, that's where I'm like, oh my instinct to be free and to take a risk is running—bumping up against this borderline that I am nervous about crossing, particularly as I enter into working on my next piece. But I think it's, it's more of a blip than, it’s I think it's more of a bug than a feature.
And so I'll get back there, but in general, my practice is to just say the unsayable and therefore to cross the line. To be honest. To be truthful.That for me is the fearlessness of it, is that I'm, I'm in general pretty much an open book and I say what I'm thinking and I try to say what I mean and mean what I say, particularly in term in my work, but also in my life though, I'm finding myself in life sometimes editing because I fear that people won't understand or that they'll recoil at my thoughts. But it's weird because in opportunities like this to speak with someone like you, it's like another opportunity to sort of say the unsayable and to just sort of live in my truth.
[01:05:52] Helga: Thank you.
[01:05:53] Michael R. Jackson: Thank you.
[01:05:53] Helga: Come over here hug Helga. Oh, what a pleasure.
[01:05:58] Michael R. Jackson: Likewise.
[01:06:02] Helga: Thanks for listening to my conversation with Michael R. Jackson. I'm Helga Davis. Join me next week for my conversation with poet essayist and playwright Claudia Rankine.
[01:06:20] Claudia Rankine: And if I feel like I'm in danger of not listening, I will write down “listen” on a piece of paper because I, I think it's so important to hear what somebody is really telling you. I want to give to the other person as much as they need while keeping myself erect, you know, keeping myself standing. And the only way to do that in a way that's equitable and feels good so that I can go on to the next moment is really listening, really being attentive both to my own needs and to the needs of people around me.
[01:07:06] Helga: To connect with the show Text Helga to 7 0 1 0 1, and we'll send you a link to our show page with every episode of this and past seasons, transcripts of my conversations and resources of all the artists, authors, and musicians who have come up in conversation. We'd also love to hear from you, so drop us an email anytime at email@example.com.
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Season five of Helga is a co-production of WNYC studios and the Brown Arts Institute at Brown University. The show is produced by Alex Ambrose and David Norville with help from Luci Jones. Our technical director is Alan Goffinski, and our executive producer is Elizabeth Nonemaker. Original music by Meshell Ndegeocello and Jason Moran. Avery Willis Hoffman is our executive producer at the Brown Arts Institute, along with producing director Jessica Wasilewski. WQXR's Chief Content Officer is Ed Yim.