Michael R. Jackson’s musical A Strange Loop is not formally auto-biographical, but it was born of the artist’s real-life experience. Specifically, navigating his place in the world. The story follows a young, black gay musical theatre writer (with a famous name) who works as an usher at a Broadway show (like Jackson used to) and who is writing a musical about a young, black gay musical theatre writer working a job he hates while also writing a musical.
“It’s a mix of fact, fiction, and perception,” says Jackson. The end result: “a raucous, personal, painful, joyful, musical thing.”
A Strange Loop, which opens this month at Playwrights Horizons (co-produced with Page 73, directed by Stephen Brackett) and runs through July 7, has been more than 15 years in the making. The piece began as a personal monologue, which was eventually musicalized, in which Jackson struggled to see himself succeeding in his field. “Once I started ushering and saw Broadway up close, I thought: ‘My musical will never be here. It will never be produced because it’s too crazy.’
This turned out to be a gift. Thinking it would never be staged, Jackson has developed A Strange Loop without ever compromising on his vision or ideas. The show is deliberately challenging and boundary-pushing. It’s also deeply personal and specific, offering a glimpse into what it means to be a black, gay artist cycling through one’s perceptions of themselves and their own self-hatred.
“It’s really important for me to create a context for thinking about the human condition that takes into account a black and/or queer person’s personal take on it. There’s something of value in seeing that reflected onstage,” says Jackson. “Theatre is a test of empathy, and I think A Strange Loop is a piece that is testing your empathy in a very particular way while also inviting you in…. It’s about someone who is black and gay, and also going through the human condition, just like [all of us]. The details aren’t necessarily the same, but the feeling, and the pain and the humor are.”
With that in mind, Jackson is conscious of a tendency amongst audiences, including critics and the media, to approach the work of an artist like himself. “I feel like its so easy to flatten out all of our ideas and questions and our concerns. Our fantasies and our fears that end up being expressed in our works,” says the playwright and singer-songwriter. “To me, theatre is about being a reflection of life. That reflection is going to come from my perception of the world—but what happens a lot of times is that people are so excited for black playwrights to be teaching and punishing people about race that we lose sight of the fact that each of us has an individual lens and perception of the world, and individual fears and passions and contradictions and complexity that has nothing to do with the history of American racism, for example. It also has everything to do with it—everything and nothing.
“I wrote this piece thinking it would never be produced. I made all these assumptions about what theatre was and where I belonged in the world—who would listen to me and who would care,” says Jackson. “To be at this moment, where it’s actually being done and with people who I’ve been in the room with for 10 years. It really means a lot to me….and I’m profoundly grateful.”