Michael R. Jackson is the first black musical theatre writer to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his musical A Strange Loop …
Which won the 2022 Tony Award for Best Musical. And now, the multi-award winning play is showing at the Barbican centre in London.
We spoke to Jackson about the journey in bringing his musical about a young black artist grappling with desires, identity, and instincts he both loves and loathes to life …
Please introduce yourself …
My name is Michael R. Jackson, and I am the author of the musical A Strange Loop. I’m from Detroit Michigan, originally, though I live currently in New York City. And I am African American.
Being a playwright is like …
Being a playwright is like playing pretend – and so far it’s been like the longest recess ever.
Describe your life right now in a word or one sentence …
Right now, my life is like being on a rollercoaster.
Tell us about your latest project A Strange Loop …
My musical A Strange Loop is about a young fat black gay musical theatre writer named Usher who works as an usher at a Broadway show, who is writing a musical about a young fat black gay musical theatre writer named Usher who works as an usher at a Broadway show, who is writing a musical about a young fat black gay musical theatre writer named Usher who works as an usher at a Broadway show … and is sort of cycling through his own self-hatred aided by an ensemble of his ‘thoughts’.
How did A Strange Loop come about?
Right after I graduated from undergrad playwriting at NYU. I was at a very uncertain and scared moment in my life as a 22/23-year-old and so I began writing a thinly veiled personal monologue called Why I Can’t Get Work, that was a thinly veiled personal testimony about what it felt like to be a young black gay man walking around New York City wondering why life was so terrible.
20 YEARS IN THE MAKING … what kept you motivated to keep going?
I didn’t have any other option. I was working a terrible day job, or day jobs, that I hated and I wasn’t making very much money doing those – it wasn’t like I had that to fall back on so, I kept going because I didn’t have anything else.
Why is A Strange Loop important to you personally?
A Strange Loop is important to me because it is a fearless accounting of the self, and it asserts its right to exist despite the forces – internal and external – that would run counter to that.
Who was your shoulder to lean on getting A Strange Loop from idea to stage?
I’ve had so many shoulders to lean on over the years. With A Strange Loop one person who is very important is my director Stephen Brackett who really helped usher the piece to where it is, starting over 10 years ago. I would say the Musical Theatre Factory is an organisation in America that offered the piece development and total support at a really crucial time. Kent Nicholson was the musical theatre producer at Playwrights Horizons who really helped get the piece on Playwrights Horizons’ radar and my producer Barbara Whitman, who is a commercial producer, saw the potential for the piece to have a life and she offered support. Also, Page 73 Productions was an off-Broadway theatre company that offered support at a crucial time alongside Barbara. In addition, my choreographer, Raja Feather Kelly, came in and breathed a breath of life into the piece – and my music director, Rona Siddiqui, with her ability to translate the music in all ways far beyond my capabilities, was so crucial. I’ve had so many shoulders – and there are so many more beside that.
Highs, lows, solutions …?
Some of the highs were getting the show to off-Broadway, and Playwrights Horizons will always be one of the brightest spots of the journey of A Strange Loop. Certainly going to Broadway, and discovering Jaquel Spivey who played Usher on Broadway was a real find for us, and getting to see the Broadway cast be recognised in various ways and seen by so many people was one of the high spots. Also, doing my first TV appearances on Seth Meyers, The Jennifer Hudson Show and The Daily Show, were highlights, and of course the Tonys, that was a big – it was such a fun, crazy night where I really got to celebrate myself, my work and my peers and the brilliant cast, and everybody involved in the show. Low points – I guess finding out the show was closing on Broadway – that was a low point, but getting to perform in the show, by necessity, the weekend before we closed was weirdly a high point that came after that because it gave me closure for the show – going from having lived the life that inspired the writing of A Strange Loop to having to then play that for an audience.
Pinch me moment?
I had so many. I got to meet a lot of really cool people throughout all the runs of the show. I think meeting Bette Midler was a pinch me moment, first of all, because of her having come out of working in back houses with a lot of gay men, and losing a lot of people to AIDS and then seeing how the show impacted her – she was always an artist whose work I really loved. At one moment she noticed that my glasses were dirty so she took them off my face and she cleaned them on her dress – it was a really cute touching moment and I will always remember that. There were so many other moments with people like that that I will always remember where I was like ‘oh that was really cool’.
Pulitzer, Tony award winner … discuss
Winning the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award were both really meaningful to me because it was people acknowledging my work as having literary merit, which was something that I’d always wanted as a kid. I wanted to be the kind of writer who would make work that would be worth being noted as literature, so both of those awards for me felt like validation of the time that I had spent working to make work that would be acknowledged in that way.
GETTING TO KNOW YOU …
What’s your current plan B?
It’s funny, I’ve been thinking a lot about plan B – part of me has been thinking I would switch genres to writing something like non-fiction, but I don’t have any concrete plans.
What’s made you Sad, Mad, Glad this week?
One thing that’s made me sad is thinking about the state of the Arts because there has become less emphasis on people really deeply appreciating art for art’s sake, and art is a place where you can truly do and say anything. Particularly in America, things are just getting more constrained and conservative in ways that are antithetical to what makes art and theatre so vital. I’ve been a little saddened by watching that, and I’m wondering whether my inclination to always push the boundaries is losing traction or if it will ever gain more. I don’t have my finger on the pulse of where the art and theatre world is heading – but I just see lots more conformity, a lot more conservatism and I’m saddened by that.
Connected to that, what’s making me mad is I feel that the Internet and social media are making the world more polarised, less democratic, weirdly – even though people say that there is this democracy of ideas online – I feel like it is all a tower of babble that people don’t listen to each other or understand what each other is trying to say. Everybody wants to live in their own alternative universe. There’s no sense that we should all come together around a common understanding, or that that’s even desirable; that everybody should just live in their own little bubble and I don’t think that any of our institutions are helping to do anything to disrupt that or to promote civil conversations and debates that that aren’t just about casting somebody out. People don’t like to hear the term ‘cancel culture’ but the fact of the matter is it exists because everything has been sorted online. And when everything is online, you can zap people out of existence, or you can make them radioactive so that they can’t say anything, or anything that they say can be used against them in the ‘court of law of public opinion’ so that makes me upset.
What makes me glad – I have to say I’ve been in Ireland recently and it’s was a truly a joyous experience to be there in that community of people. I don’t know if it was just the particular place where I was or not, but the people were really friendly and every night at the bar there was singing – it felt like another time and it was so comforting to me. It’s like a little warm womb that I was inside of.
What are you watching right now?
I cancelled all of my streaming services recently so I’m not watching anything new. I started watching the 80s sitcom Family Ties from the beginning which I’ve really been enjoying, and I’ve been watching Murder She Wrote. I’ve also been renting a bunch of old movies; most recently, I watched this old John Carpenter horror movie from the 90s called In The Mouth of Madness – I think it got panned when it came out but it’s a really freaky movie and I really liked it. So I’ve mainly just been watching old movies and old TV shows.
What are you reading right now?
I’ve been very slowly reading this book called Black Bourgeoisie by the sociologist E. Franklin Frazier and that one has been eye opening and edifying for me to read.
What are you listening to right now?
I’m listening to a lot of old music – nothing consistently, but every day something will strike me. Recently, I have been listening to the opera Nixon in China, I love the music to it, by John Adams, so I’ve been listening to it a lot.
The last thing you saw on stage?
The last thing I saw on stage was Parade on Broadway.
What’s on your bucket list?
I’ve never been to Hawaii, I would really like to go to there. I want to buy a house, I want to travel and see more of the world, I’d like to write the libretto for an opera – that’s something I really want to do. I’d also like to be a voice that people want to hear from, make a career of being someone that people can feel that they can trust to be truthful and honest with them.
Celebrate someone else …
I celebrate my choreographer on A Strange Loop, Raja Feather Kelly, who is one of the hardest working and most innovative artists that I know. He is always working on multiple projects at once and doing all of them at a high level of excellence and I really admire him and his drive while doing so much.
Celebrate yourself …
I’m proud of myself for pushing to make my last musical White Girl in Danger happen. We lost some key funding very close to starting rehearsals and I had to step up to help find the funding to make it happen. That was in addition to writing it and casting it, and being very involved in all the making of it. We were able to successfully get the show off the ground, in part because I picked up the phone and called some key people and figured out how to make them help us make this show happen – which is not something that I had ever done ever in my entire life and it was a lot of money we had to raise – and I did it. I’m proud of myself for fighting to make my show happen.
Whose footsteps are you following in?
Kirsten Childs, the author of The Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin. She is an artist who really inspired me to work on A Strange Loop when I wasn’t sure how I would move forward with it, and I’m just in such a fan of her of her work.
Next, I’ll be working on a musical adaptation of the 2007 indie horror comedy Teeth with my collaborator Anna K. Jacobs – she’s the composer, and we’re sharing book writing and I’m also the lyricist. It will be in production the beginning of next year.
Where can we find you?
You can find me on Instagram @thelivingmichaeljackson, on Twitter @thelivingMJ or my website thelivingmichaeljackson.com
Where can we see / read / listen to your latest work?
You can listen to my music on for A Strange Loop on Spotify – or wherever you listen to music. You can also listen to some early albums of mine on bandcamp.com, they’re called Good Clean Music and Dirty Laundry from my 2 EP’s that I released. And you can also see my musical A Strange Loop which is on now at the Barbican.
A Strange Loop is running at the Barbican until 9 September, for tickets visit strangeloopmusical.com