'A Strange Loop' Star Michael R. Jackson Never Felt 'Represented on Stage'

A Strange Loop’s Michael R. Jackson On
Playwright/Composer/Lyricist Michael R. Jackson during the opening night curtain call for the new musical "Strange Loop" on Broadway at The Lyceum Theatre on April 26, 2022 in New York City. Bruce Glikas/Getty Images

"I've never seen my story represented on stage."

Rarely does a musical come along where you can just feel that you're experiencing something groundbreaking. That's exactly what's happening with Michael R. Jackson's A Strange Loop.

Already a winner of the Pulitzer Prize and nominated for 11 Tony awards—including Best Musical—A Strange Loop is billed as "the big, Black, and queer-ass Great American Musical for all," and that couldn't be more true. Written by Jackson, the show follows a young man named Usher who just happens to be an usher for a big Broadway musical. In a way that can only be described as transformative, Usher struggles to find himself and his voice as a queer Black man over the course of the musical.

Jackson spoke with Newsweek's Parting Shot with H. Alan Scott about the process of creating the show, what it feels like for it to be such a success, and what this moment means for diversity on Broadway.

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Could A Strange Loop have existed 10 years ago?

10 years ago? Probably not. But I also think that 10 years ago, I wouldn't have been in a place to fully write it the way that I think it needed to be written.

There still was a lot of personal growth that I needed to do in my life, which then translated into how I understood Usher's life, and what his goals were, and what he was trying to represent. And it just would have been the same in a lot of ways, but it would not have been, I think, as deep and as complete an artistic expression as it is today.

Why is portraying diverse stories onstage important?

I've never seen my story represented on stage. That is, my story, "I feel so seen," or, you know, "Thank you for telling our stories." As Black gay men or Black queer people, we're never in that spectrum.

And then there'll be other people who will say something like, "I'm not a Black gay man... And so, this really spoke to me and made me think and it challenged me. And it made me feel emotions."

This white man came up to me recently and said that he had really struggled with his [family] accepting him as gay for many years. And then he convinced some of them to come to the show, and then the show helped begin a dialogue in their family. That's very powerful. Because, again, this is their specific story, about a specific human being. And yet, the things that he goes through can reach across the bow, and other people can grab hold of it, and they can use it for whatever they need to use it for in their own lives.

That feels like such a win to me, especially in a world where there's so many disappointments and, you know, our political system and social media nightmares, and everything that's going on in the world. That there's still a human-to-human way of communicating something, and helping other people. Emotionally, that means everything to me.

There's a song in the musical called "Inner White Girl." And it's so interesting, because it's so specific to the character and it's so reminiscent of what the character is trying to express—and you really feel that. I'm not a Black man, I'm a gay man, but I can relate. What does that song mean to you?

For me, it really draws its inspiration from the female singer-songwriters who deeply inspired me on an artistic and personal level. Tori Amos being sort of my origin, Liz Phair, Joni Mitchell... Those are three white women singer-songwriters whose work exposes themselves fearlessly. Quirks and all. They show everything: everything that's on their mind, their brass, their sassy, their wise, their cool, tall, vulnerable and luscious. Their everything.

They share everything that they're thinking, and they do it with such artistic aplomb. And that inspired me, interacting with those artists when I was younger, and even to this day, to try to find that in myself. And so yes, I call it the "inner white girl," but it's really about internal freedom and artistic freedom.

The line between artistic freedom and personal freedom for us is a very thin line. And I just wanted to sort of create an ode to the kind of freedom that Usher would want and that I've wanted in my life as an artist and as a Black man.

I think the show is opening up a lot of people's minds to talking about queer Black men, and Black men in general, in a different way—in a more positive way.

I certainly hope so. I mean, definitely lots of Black men come up to me and have been really emotional and grateful for what the show represents for them. And there have been others who have come up to me and said, "I'm the mother of a Black gay son," or "Thank you for telling this story, I learned something this, there are things about this story that touched on my relationship with my son."

There was a white mom who was like, "I didn't handle my son coming out well at all. But then I came around, and then I had to become his defender." So seeing the story really touched her. So I do hope for sure that to the extent that a musical can, that it does sort of open people's eyes to different representations of Black men. Because Black men are very much demonized in our society in a lot of ways, and, and the representations of Black men are often very narrow, even if they're straight, heterosexual men. And so I definitely am somebody who's interested in widening the lanes for all Black representations and Black male representation in particular.

A Strange Loop’s Michael R. Jackson On
(L-R) L Morgan Lee, Jason Veasey, John-Andrew Morrison, Jaquel Spivey, John-Michael Lyles, James Jackson, Jr. and Antwayn Hopper during the opening night curtain call for the new musical "Strange Loop" on Broadway at The Lyceum Theatre on April 26, 2022 in New York City. Bruce Glikas/Getty Images

You've also said that you struggle with being open about that sort of conversation about weight.

I just think that it's real. And it really actually bothers me. The dishonesty with which people talk about overweight people, however you want to describe us—how we get talked about, and how our struggles with our weight get talked about?

I noticed this very much during COVID, when people wanted to do all this [fear] mongering be like, "Well, people who are fat are gonna get COVID and die," and "You need to lose weight." As if you could be like, "Oh, gosh, I don't want to get COVID so I better get to the gym."

But then I also look at the news. And there were people who were physically fit who died. People never want to miss an opportunity to point out that you're fat and you don't look the way that you should. You're unhealthy. And you probably have heart problems, and you have diabetes, and all these things. And those things are real. There are people in my family who are diabetic.

I, many years ago, got on a fitness plan. I lost 80 pounds. Even when I lost 80 pounds, it still didn't feel like enough, because of the messages that people are constantly putting out there about what "fit" means and how it feels.

I'm working with a nutrition coach now, and it's a slow race. There's a lot you have to unlearn about food. This country is not great about nutrition in general; not teaching people about nutrition from an early age, and there's food deserts. There's all kinds of issues, but the worst thing is that the constant demonization of fat bodies and the way that fitness and nutrition are not woven more seamlessly into our lives as part of psychological wellness.

Listen to H. Alan Scott's full conversation with Michael R. Jackson on Newsweek's Parting Shot. Available on Apple Podcasts and Spotify. Twitter: @HAlanScott