The Award-Winning Musical That’s A Cocktail Of Humour And Discomfort
When Michael R Jackson pops up on Zoom early on a Monday morning, he’s oddly serene considering his debut musical A Strange Loop is up for 11 Tony Awards. By the end of the same week, the production – dubbed a ‘Big, Black, and Queer-Ass’ American musical – will have won two trophies, including the crowning glory, Best Musical. The dream that took 18 years to create will be met by a literal and figurative standing ovation, proving there’s plenty of room for a production that dares to be different.
The show shakes off the cobwebs of the Great ‘White’ Way, offering a respite from the family-friendly titles that often dominate its theatres. “I think there’s certainly value in, ‘What a great show. Let’s go have a piece of pie,’” Jackson admits. “But I think it’s also great if you’re like, ‘Wow, I’m thinking about that a week later.’” A Strange Loop is much more the latter: it’s a musical written by a queer Black man, writing a musical about a queer Black man, writing a musical about a queer Black man. It’s self-referential, without being autobiographical; distinctly specific yet universal. And it’s not apologising for being as blunt as the backend of a Bible upside your head.
The show tackles everything from racial prejudice and explicit sex to Tyler Perry and fatness, but when Jackson is asked if he was worried about overwhelming audiences with a buffet of touchy subjects, he flashes a smile and says, “I was never worried about sharing it with anyone because I’m kind of an oversharer by nature.” It mustn’t hurt that people seem to like what he’s sharing, with the show’s long list of producers including A-list talent from RuPaul to Alan Cumming.
Set in the mind of the main character named Usher, he and his six thoughts explore the ‘strange loop’ of Usher’s consciousness, with the six thoughts becoming machinations that range from ‘daily self-loathing’ to Usher’s perceptions of his hyper-masculine father and Bible-thumping mother. The show mixes comedy with frank social commentary (such as the clap-along the audience is roped into during the number Aids Is God’s Punishment), leaving viewers with a bizarre cocktail of humour and discomfort. “I just really wanted to send that up on fire,” he says, speaking of the show’s tone, particularly when it comes to the subject matter of how religion is used against queer people. “The reality of it is that it’s not just that it’s homophobic. It’s that it all sounds so good.”
At 41, Jackson’s A Strange Loop would be one hell of a Broadway origin story, if he weren’t so entrenched in the business already. Like Usher, Jackson worked on Broadway as an usher at The Lion King and Mary Poppins for years before his own show made it to the stage. A graduate of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and a lifetime theatre fan, his brilliant work is his opportunity to create something for theatre lovers that, despite being beautifully Big and Black and Queer-Ass, feels oddly familiar. At the core of A Strange Loop, there’s you – like, literally you, the observer. Jackson taps into something unnervingly honest about being in your own head. “I felt unseen, unheard, misunderstood,” he explains. “If other people connect to that… then we get to feel not so alone together.”
As Jackson notes, he’s had people from all walks of life say that they relate to Usher’s doubt, anxiety, and self-reflection. “Joni Mitchell has this great lyric,” he says, looking up to remember the words of one of his “white girl music” inspirations. “It all comes down to you. No matter what else is happening, it all comes down to you.”
That’s half the beauty of A Strange Loop because when it’s over, the biggest twist of the show is what it reveals about you.
Justin Kirkland is a Brooklyn-based writer whose work has appeared in Esquire, Vulture and USA Today