Speaker 1: [singing] Big, Black and queer-ass American Broadway
Big, Black and queer-ass American Broadway
Big, Black and queer-ass American Broadway show.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Welcome back to The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. A Strange Loop on the poll surprise for drama in 2020, following a successful off-Broadway run. Now, just a month on Broadway, it's nominated for 11 Tony's, the most nominated production of the year.
Speaker 1: [singing] How many minutes till the end of intermission?
Is that how the show should open?
Should there even be a show?
It should start with what he's thinking
Which is just a cursor blinking
'Cause of all of the directions that the narrative could go
He wants to show what it's like to live up here
Melissa: The play is about a queer Black writer named Usher, who's writing a show about a queer Black writer, who's writing a show about a queer Black writer, who's writing a show about a queer Black writer. Hence, a strange loop.
Speaker 1: [singing] How many minutes till the end of intermission?
No one cares about a writer who is struggling to write
The story's way too repetitious
Also overly ambitious
Melissa: I spoke with playwright and composer, Michael R Jackson about his groundbreaking musical which tackles themes of queerness, race, religion, and AIDS with humor and hearts.
Speaker 1: [singing] Queers on the daily.
Melissa: All right so this is quite a labor of love, 18 years working on this show. That's like the amount of time it took me to raise like a human.
Michael R Jackson: I know it definitely is my baby.
Melissa: Tell me a bit about what it took to rear this little human up to the Tony's?
Michael: I started working on A Strange Loop when I was about 23 years old. I had just graduated from undergrad at NYU playwriting. I didn't know what I was going to do with my life. I had a BFA degree, what did I do with that? The US was about to go to war with Iraq. I was living in this little old lady's bungalow-style house in the middle of nowhere Jamaica, Queens. I was just very uncertain of my place in the world and so I began writing a monologue that at that time was called Why I Can't Get Work.
It was just about a young Black gay man walking around New York City wondering why life was so terrible and meditating on different areas of his life and the world. From there, it just began to evolve as I went to grad school and started writing songs and then the song started to go into the monologue and then the loop began.
Melissa: I almost hate to ask it, but is it your story?
Michael: I always try to be clear with people that this story is emotionally autobiographical. I often use the term self-referential, which is to say that I have felt everything that the protagonist, Usher has felt but the events of his life are not always or even necessarily a one-to-one ratio of events to my life.
Melissa: Is the audience there for you when you're composing and when you're writing? Are you thinking about how it's being received or is the audience secondary for you?
Michael: I'm always thinking about the audience not in a sense of trying to please them or to pan to them but into trying to pull them into the story. I'm always thinking how to make sure that they understand what's going on and how do I put them in the case of this show, into Usher's brain because that's where the show takes place, what tools do I have at my disposal to draw them in, and allow them to experience a piece on their own terms.
Melissa: I am into explicit language, I tend to curse in the middle of Zoom meetings on [chuckles] and especially when the meetings are on Zoom. I do. I curse like a drunken angry sailor who also has a toe injury. I'm wondering as you're talking about the ways that you're allowing the show to meet folks where they are and for your audience to have this full experience. Did you get any resistance around the language in the show may be more specifically second wave because that song is doing a lot?
Speaker 1: [singing] Because the second wave feminist in me
Is at war with the [sound cut] Black gay man
Who's not looking for now
Michael: [chuckles] Yes, that's one of the songs in it that was started off as a standalone song, that I just wrote for myself, and then it found a home in A Strange Loop. It's just one of the moments in the show where Usher is free form thinking through how he feels in the wake of going on all of these Grindr, Scruff apps thing, and looking for love in all the wrong places.
Speaker 1: [singing] So I fall outside of the norm
Melissa: Michael, I just got to go back to something you said there. You said it found a home in the show but you actually initially just wrote it for yourself. When you're just walking around the house, doing the dishes, you're singing these lyrics. I mean, that's pretty intense, son.
Michael: Listen, I'd like to swear to-- I'm a language first person and I think all words are beautiful and you arrange them in a certain way to convey an idea. If it hits, it hits. I'm like a truffle pig in that way. Is the idea really going to pierce through the veil?
Melissa: The show references many times Usher's inner white girl, I often say I'm at war with my-- it used to be my inner Becky, now I guess it's my inner Karen.
Michael: [laughs] A friend of mine has a term called Karens of color, which I think is funny.
Melissa: What is Usher's inner white girl?
Michael: Usher's inner white girl is essentially women singer-songwriter that he really admires who through their art are expressing themselves in a multitude of ways that he really relates to emotionally. Not necessarily insane. The song is not about how he wants to be a white woman or anything like that. It's just that there's these women who have this music where they get to be emotional, wild, unwise, and have a range of love emotions that he feels as a Black man that are not necessarily afforded to him by the world at large. That he and his work is trying to express to show a nuance of self.
Speaker 1: [singing] Because, white girls can do anything
Black boys must always obey their mothers
Michael: Specifically, the women that he points to in the show are Liz Phair, Tori Amos, and Joni Mitchell.
Melissa: You just got to meet Tori Amos. Can you tell me about that?
Michael: Yes, it was really incredible. It was something that got set up through our general manager knew someone and they knew I was going to the concert anyway. I'd already bought a ticket for the first night. When it turned out because we were trying to see if we could get her to come to the show while she was in New York but she didn't have time but they said that she'd be willing to speak to me if I came to the show.
I asked them to get me and a couple of my friends who were also Victoria fans to go backstage and meet her after the show and it was truly magical. It transported me right back to my 15-year-old self who was super angsty and just coming out and questioning religion that I've been raised with. All kinds of things that Tori speaks to so beautifully and in a complex way and in a profane way that was very exciting to me and her music as a 15-year-old who was both coming out as a person but also coming out as an artist.
Melissa: We have to take a quick break more with playwright and composer, Michael R Jackson just ahead here on The Takeaway. Back with you now on The Takeaway, I'm Melissa Harris-Perry and we're speaking with Michael R Jackson, the playwright, composer, and lyricist behind A Strange Loop.
Speaker 1: [singing] Unleash my hungry lion
Cause Lord, he's had enough
Of toxic Tyler Perry
Melissa: One of the show's principal antagonists is none other than Tyler Perry, the actor, director, producer, and self-made billionaire who's, of course, the creator of the popular Madea franchise. Perry's work hangs like an ever-present cloud over Usher's artistic and professional landscape. His mother's favorite creator whose work represents a mainstream Black identity that Usher rejects. I'm not even going to lay this out as a question, I'm just going to say two words.
Melissa: Tyler Perry.
Michael: Tyler Perry. Yes, what about him? [laughs]
Melissa: I believe that in many ways, you and I likely share a similar assessment of Mr. Perry's body of work that despite his often being held up for his--
Michael: As a table maker.
Melissa: Yes, that may be rather one of us are that excited by the things that he creates and gives for us to consume.
Michael: I feel like whenever Tyler comes up in regards to A Strange Loop, I feel that it's really important for me to be very clear with people about it. I do not have a personal grudge against Tyler Perry at all. He's been very nice to me over text, he's called me, he's congratulated me on the show. The thing that I actually that trying to get at is like I have issues with his work. I actually think that it's worth it to talk about it.
I think that a lot of times with Black authors because it there's so much scarcity around, like when and where our work is seen and how much of it is there and is there enough of it and blah, blah, that we don't spend a ton of time actually talking about it. I feel that Tyler Perry has an audience. It's an audience that loves his work. My mother is devoted to his work and I think that's valid, but I also think that it's valid to be able to talk about the flaws in it, as I see them.
It all began for me with his work, really when I went and saw the film Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor because there's a lot of content in that film that, in my view, very irresponsibly deals with the issue of HIV/AIDS. That's something that has touched the Black community, has touched people that I know, and it really came to my door. In 2019, when a dear friend of mine passed away from aids-related complications. In part, because of a lot of the ideology that I feel is touched upon in a film like that.
I'm not laying all of that on his doorstep, but I did feel that in addition to that, I just wanted to talk about the work. I actually think of that makes it stronger because I'm taking him seriously. I'm not one of these people who just goes like, "Oh, on snooty." "Boo, you Black." "Ugh, that's not how we do things." That's not my take on it. I love low-brow things. I am a real Housewife of Atlanta and Beverly Hills all day. There's many references to the Housewives and A Strange Loop. I'm just like people say that his work is like real life. That's something I've heard people say.
I just was very struck by that because I feel like I know some of the things that he's getting at, but the execution of it is often so one dimensional, that I'm like, "Why are Black people being depicted in this way, in this world, and being celebrated in this way?" I mean, maybe it doesn't matter, but I just, as an artist, as like a critical thinker, I think it's worth it to just to talk about it. But that being said, he's been very nice to me.
Melissa: Let's stay with that. I have just two more. One is you've talked about the profane and the sacred at the intersection, and where your work is challenging us at the intersection of the sacred and profane.
Michael: Oh gosh, that's a deep question. [chuckles] I don't know. Wait, what do you think?
Michael: I don't think I have an answer to that. You've stumped me. I'm usually good on the stump and I'm a little gagged by that. I don't know how to totally answer that.
Melissa: For me, I feel like you're asking us to reimagine what constitutes the sacred and that you're pushing back against these very narrow, let's call them, religious definitions of the sacred and opening us up to a really, I would say, a more fully realized conception of it and that we sometimes have to carry a profanity into that space to find sacredness, but I don't want to put that in your mouth. That's just like me critiquing out here.
Michael: What that makes me think of is that toward the end of A Strange Loop, there's a song called Memory Song, where the refrain of it is, "All those Black gay boys I knew who chose to go on back to the Lord" and then it came to, "I'm one of those Black gay boys I knew who chose to turn his back on the Lord" instead.
Speaker 1: [singing] All those Black gay boys I knew who chose to go on back to the Lord
I'm one of those Black gay boys I knew who chose to turn his back on the Lord
Michael: Then that's followed up by a song called, by the title song, A Strange Loop wherein he sings. "Maybe I don't need changing"
Speaker 1: [singing] Maybe I don't need changing
Maybe I should regroup
'Cause change is just an illusion
Michael: Both of those songs, I didn't realize this until like I was watching a couple of previews and listening to the music and watching it with the audience. If they both have an almost Christian rock-like vibe to them but the songs are-- this celebration of the self as holy, as being as we say, as said in the Black church-- Not blessed and highly favored, what's that expression I was going to say?
Melissa: Yes, blessed and highly how you doing today? Blessed and highly--
Michael: It's less and highly favor, but there's another one that says fearfully and wonderfully made.
Melissa: Oh, yes.
Michael: That Usher comes to see himself as fearfully and wonderfully made, but he can't get to that place of transcendent selfhood and spirituality without going through the gauntlet, and going through the fire, and the crucible of all the organized religion that he's raised with and the sexuality, the degradation. All of that leads him through the wilderness of self, like 40 days and 40 nights. I do think that there's a connection there of the sacred and the profane and where the usher ends up by the end of it.
That certainly has been my experience having been raised in the church and like hearing a lot of negative things about being gay, but also wanting to get to a higher place and art being the thing that helped me get to a higher place of feeling a spiritual place. The theater and making theater is sort of my holy place. It's also the place where I get to be profane.
Melissa: Michael R Jackson, thank you for joining The Takeaway.
Michael: Thank you for having me.
Speaker 1: [singing] Then what a strange
Melissa: The original Broadway cast recording is available on June 10th.
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